Monday, February 20, 2012

SUNRISE, One of the True Essentials

I recently wrote up The Essentials webpage on Sunrise, which airs on March 31st on Turner Classic Movies at 8 p.m. as a part of the new season of The Essentials hosted by Robert Osborne and Drew Barrymore.  Writing up an Essentials post is an opportunity to get to know a movie inside and out, given the voluminous amounts of research to be done and information to impart.  I was thankful to be assigned Sunrise as I have always found it a beautiful and poetic film.  Included in my piece is the passage below, reprinted from the TCM page.  Writing this passage that details the opening four minutes gave me the chance to look at the opening moment by moment if not frame by frame.  It gave me a real appreciation for the genius and artistry of F.W.Murnau and I encourage anyone who hasn't seen it to tune in on the 31st to experience this masterwork of cinema.

From TCM's The Essentials:

From the first frames, Murnau begins his work. A poster of a train station advertising “Summertime” as “vacation time” dissolves into the train station itself, only this is no ordinary station. The trains in the foreground are miniatures, overlaying a station platform below, bustling with passengers, which looks out via a glass wall to the world outside, also alive and moving, as far the eye can see. Suddenly, we see a train race across the countryside, to the right, while another shoots up from a tunnel as if rocketing towards the sky, to the left. Murnau then contrasts this with a second shot of the vacationers themselves, at the crowded public beaches on the right with a shot of a ship, presumably a luxury cruise liner, to the left, overlayed upon a cityscape. Next, the screen fades to black and opens to a point-of-view shot from the stern of a ferry leisurely making its way across a scenic lake, filled with sailboats and dinghies. Aboard the ferry are urban dwellers, signaled by their tweed vests, walking sticks and boaters, heading for the shoreline where greeters await amongst the farms and cottages. Importantly, there are no optical overlays here. The countryside is presented as is. Murnau has taken the viewer on a journey from one place to another but also from one state of mind to another, all in less than two minutes of screen time.

After that extraordinary setup, the movie informs the viewer by way of inter-title that a woman from the city has lingered long after all the other vacationers have retreated to their urban lives. When we fade in on her rented room in a cottage, her clothes are strewn about, a pair of high-heeled shoes rest atop a trunk and she bounces into the room sporting a bob and lighting a cigarette from the candle on a desk. From this slovenly room we cut to the owners of the cottage, downstairs in the simple, clean and bare dining room, eating their soup until the woman comes in, stares at the lady of the house, then at her shoe until the lady of the house leaves her dinner to polish the city woman’s shoes. Finally, we cut to the outside as Murnau now takes the final step in this masterpiece of exposition. From the frenetic, multi-cut, multi-layered shots of the city, to the un-layered yet still multi-cut scenes of the lake, we now follow the woman walking from the cottage down the road, past some villagers to a small farmhouse, all in one, steady, uncut tracking shot. Murnau has wound everything down to this moment, both literally and figuratively, when the woman calls on the attentions of the man with whom she is having an affair and sets everything the story will reveal in motion. In all, from train station to farmhouse, about four minutes of screen time have been used and yet, in that four minutes, Murnau has accomplished more than most film makers do in their entire careers.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Please, Sir, I Want No More.

Maybe it's just me (in fact, almost assuredly, it is) but I find my generation of film enthusiasts a bit too hung up on the whole pop art aspect of cinema.  I like the popular cinema, I do, really I do.  But I also like film as an art form and as I watch more and more of it, that's the cinema I lean towards.  I understand that as a business, film as a whole can't strut around displaying one Playtime, Persona or Repulsion after another and remain a viable enterprise.  I understand the need for the blending of art and commerce, the kind made so popular and so successful by the likes of Steven Spielberg and I also understand films like Melancholia or Tree of Life don't fire up the imagination of the general citizenry like a good Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jaws (or even Warhorse or Tintin).  I understand that and to take it a step further, I even appreciate the skill and talent behind Raiders and Jaws to the extent that I not only cannot imagine a cinematic universe without them, I wouldn't want to.

But can we stop talking about it?  Or them?  Or just Spielberg?

It's not that I hate Spielberg (I don't and not even Armond White's hyperbolic elevations of Spielberg or his crude put downs of anyone who doesn't like him can totally turn me off of Spielberg - although sometimes White comes close) it's that he is the most popular film maker of the last forty years.  If I never read another thing about him and I live to be 125, I'll never suffer from a lack of analysis of the man and his works.  And that popularity provides the very reason we should move on.

This isn't about Spielberg, it's about the thousands of films still to be discussed, still to be dissected.  It's about the myriad directors whose works are still woefully under-known and undebated.  And I'm not talking about the average, dull film goer.  I'm talking about the goddamn cinephiles that populate my world.  So when I see another piece on the brilliance of, oh I don't know, just pick one... say, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, I can't help but think, "Okay, yeah, great, got it!  Can we talk about something else now?"

Sorry, but I just don't care to rehash the same goddamn "oohs" and "aahs" that I've been rehashing for forty years now.  I see one fucking article or essay or video salute or list after another about Spielberg and his films and the last one was so fucking inane the guy doing it didn't even seem to comprehend that A.I. Artificial Intelligence was a terrific piece of science fiction.

Or how about someone discuss 1941 for a change?  How about that?  It's a step, at least.  It's a gesture.    Discussing what is perceived to be a director's failure is often much more illuminating than discussing a success.  And the miniatures used in that one are amazing pieces of craft work. But, in all honesty, I'd probably hate that, too.

Look, I'm not here to suggest films or tell anyone we should all start discussing underground Lithuanian cinema from the sixties, I just want to move on from Spielberg.  It is my great misfortune to find him rather dull despite the fact that I admire his talent.  This is my misfortune because, lately, online, I've seen him and his films discussed everywhere.

And I'm not talking about Warhorse or Tintin because those are new films and haven't had years and years of discussion yet.  Want to discuss them? Fine.  But don't give me another breakdown of E.T. the Extraterrestrial, please.

I'll shut up now.  It's been inside me for a while.  I have nothing to say to the argument, "But we should be discussing any film maker we want and you're free to discuss someone else, pal, so go ahead and stop your moaning!"  I have nothing to say to that because it's true.  Nothing I've written above (or very little, at least) can be supported by any form of logical argument that cannot be instantly dismissed with a simple, "Oh, so you're saying we shouldn't discuss one of the most critically and commercially successful film makers ever.  Check [rolls eyes]."   Yeah, I know, it's a rant ripe for ridicule.  But it's a bitter piece of bile that made its way down to my asshole years ago and I just finally had to shit it out.  Thanks for listening.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Sunday, February 5, 2012

"Because of death."

"Then one day it could all be gone.  One big puff of smoke and a ball of fire... all that out there... the stars, the planets, all just an empty void."

Eros, you always cheer me up.  Keep preaching, my brother.  Jeff Trent and all his kind are idiots, don't let them drag you down.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

God is a Man, Now Let's Make a Movie

I read a story last week in which someone asked, of no one in particular, what was the gender of God. If it's the God of the Bible they're talking about then the answer's easy: He's male. I've often thought the question of God's gender is only a topic open for discussion to a believer and even then, not all of them. But if you're a non-believer, there is no question: God's male because that's how he's written.

If I believe Sherlock Holmes is a real human being that once lived and I further believe Arthur Conan Doyle was inspired by the voice of Holmes to record his adventures, then I can question his gender. Perhaps Doyle, a mere mortal, got it wrong. Perhaps Holmes is a woman but Doyle was using a masculine gender out of laziness or confusion. But if I don't believe Holmes is anything more than a fictional construct, there is no question: He was written as a man, plain and simple. Doyle wasn't dropping any clues or trying to fly things under the radar. Holmes is a man, period. By the same mental journey, if I don't believe God to be anything more than a fictional construct, then I have no other venues down which to travel to debate and determine his true gender. I simply accept that He is a fictional character presented in The Bible. I further know that in that book, He is presented as a man. Not once in the whole book does anyone ever refer to Him as the Heavenly Mother. He is the Father. He is male.

So God is a man to a non-believer because that is, very clearly, how He's written. However, to a believer, to someone who believes that a spiritual creator of the universe exists, He can be anything. It almost has to be taken as a matter of course that if there is, in fact, a spiritual being so great and powerful and stunning that He can create an entire universe on a whim, then He must be so complex and magnificent that the men and women recording His existence via inspiration would surely get most of it wrong.

Look at it this way: I am the last physicist on earth, all the science books have been lost and I need to explain physics for posterity before I die, so that people will understand the mechanisms of the physical world around them. I only have a group of children with me, aged ten to fourteen, with no understanding of science, but they must carry the message, and understanding of physics, to the rest of the world. They will, through no fault of their own, get most of it wrong. I can tell them all about the Laws of thermodynamics and Einstein's Theory of Relativity but, in the end, if they walk away from any of it with even, or only, the most rudimentary understanding of what an atom is, I'd have to declare it a success and die in peace.

Thus, if you're a believer, there's room for that kind of debate about how much was interpreted correctly. A being that advanced, talking to people through the vague mechanism of non-corporeal inspiration, isn't going to have much success communicating exactly who He is and what He wants. It's probably going to be very muddled at best.

As a result, I have often felt that believers and non-believers have, each of them, an advantage over the other, advantages that should be exploited via the cinema. The advantage the believer has is if the basic outline of The Bible, the story as written, can be interpreted as real then, perhaps, mistakes were made by humans. Hence, the question above of God's gender. Believers can discuss those things to which the non-believer already has a rather prosaic answer (He's a man). The non-believer has the advantage in that they can look at it from an impersonal distance and wonder about the origins of it all. Both sides can debate the same things but each side will only be passionate about one part of the debate which may be why debates between believers and non-believers almost never resolve anything.

But each side could present a story on film that, I think, if done right, with the right director and actors, could be quite eye-opening. What has been done on film is all rather dull and pedestrian. The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Bible - all entertaining in many ways but as theology, tepid at best. And when the story strikes out on its own, using characters from The Bible, like Gregory Widen's The Prophecy, the results are mixed at best.

Here's what I'd like to see: Two movies, one from a believer's perspective and one from a non-believers perspective, that examine stories about God, presented in a fictional context that can relate the story of this exceptional being in a fantastical, adventurous way. Such a way that will spark the very real and in depth discussions that any good work of art can do.

For the believer's side, I'm thinking of a movie that explores God's existence in the ethereal plane during that time that God was supposedly inspiring those on Earth to write about Him. There would be no human characters, just God and angels. It would be presented in such a way that God's gender is female and would involve discussions with the angels about how best to explain Herself to such simple beings below. How to make those wandering children understand Her physics, so to speak. The movie would present God on God's terms, not The Bible's or any of the religions that have sprung up in its wake.

She and the angels could argue about why She feels She must tell the inspired to think She's a man because it's easier for them to comprehend. Imagine the arguments God would have with the angels (who should absolutely not be celebratory synchophants but constructive advisers in the creative process) asking her why She didn't just make it so women would be the dominant societal players, not men. I would fully expect the main debater to be Lucifer, arguing that God screwed up the creation process and now has to lie, essentially, about Her own identity to make those simpletons down there understand. And what about the creation process itself? Perhaps it's a millenia long process (I realize there would be no actual time as measured by a planet revolving around a star before they were created, I'm simply trying to juxtapose a short time, The Bible's six days, with a much longer period) of trial and error, where the angels have as many suggestions as constructive criticisms and the whole creation could be treated like a fulfilling artistic process, not a pedestrian "I want light. Here is light. Done." process. And maybe Lucifer's a little upset that all that hard work and creative output is being reduced to a six-day fairy tale because those dullards down there won't get it otherwise. "Why," Lucifer inquires, "if you don't mind my asking, Heavenly Mother, even bother telling them about you if it has to be this watered down?" And why not make Lucifer's constant questioning and condescension and smug attitude lead to God finally saying "Enough!" or "And what, exactly, have you done, lately?" And, of course, finally God breaks off the marriage, for lack of a better word, with this self-important twit who can't understand that She wants humans to know about all that there is, even if only in the most basic way.

That would be the movie I would want to see made by a believer. A movie that took the believer's passion that all of this is real but pondered the question of what happened that led to all of this (instead of the stock "Nothing came before! God made it! Period!") and explored the notion that, possibly, we've all got it wrong, horribly wrong.

From the non-believer's side I would like to see a movie that treats God and Lucifer as purely fictional, mythological beings completely misrepresented in The Bible as to their true nature and purpose. This movie wouldn't be the methodical debate of the believer's movie, it would be its flip-side. It would be an epic in which God, unbeknownst to those fools He inspired to write The Bible, was actually the antagonist of the story and Lucifer, the protagonist. The world and universe and all there is would be created by Lucifer instead. He would instill in his creations the light of knowledge and acceptance that the difference between two people doesn't make one bad and the other good. His world would be all about humanistic progress and behind the scenes, a raging, ego-maniacal God would seethe at Lucifer's folly. "Why," God inquires, "if you don't mind my asking, Heavenly Father, even bother giving these dimwits knowledge or values? They're pets! Toys! Slaves! Treat them as such! You're superior to them in every way, dammit! Act like it!" At which point, sides are taken and deception, treachery and betrayal become the norm as the two great wizards battle for supremacy of the earth and its inhabitants. In the end, of course, God wins and like all winners, gets to write the history. In His history, He created everything and as Lucifer tries his best to infiltrate the world with logic, reason and knowledge, he is thwarted every step of the way by God.

Those two movies will probably never get made. I sure don't have the resources to do them (but if I did, I would) but I'd like to see them done by someone, and done well. Frankly, I think it would help me understand both sides a little bit more. If non-believers could see the believer's side presented as a reflective discussion of how and why, I think it would help non-believers understand how so many can believe and how they operate. If believers could see the non-believer's movie, and see the characters of God and Lucifer presented as the epic, fantasy-adventure archetypes that they essentially are, battling each other , I think it would help them understand a little better why the non-believers cannot bring themselves to accept any of it as reality.

The key, I think, would be to produce both movies sincerely. That is, with the non-believer's movie, produced as completely disconnected from any Bible ever and write, direct and act the story just as one would any other epic fantasy-adventure, not as "look how we're deconstructing The Bible. Cool, huh?" but, rather, "here are the familiar characters of The Bible, envisioned in a very different way to emphasize the mythological aspects of the story." Sincerity is the key.

Apart from any sense of "understanding" I think, quite simply, an epic fantasy-adventure between God and Lucifer would be pretty awesome to watch for its own sake. It's a new century and a new millennium. Let's move past the old Biblical epics or modern day interpretations of Jesus' and the Passion, from Martin Scorsese to Mel Gibson, and start exploring the edges, the origins and the ideas through new stories, stories that explore the parts of The Bible that take place before we ever even get to "In the beginning." After all, fiction is often the best way to illuminate the truth. I say, let there be light!