Tuesday, January 24, 2012


My Dear Treeks,

This past year was the occasion in my personal life for what some might term a “crisis of faith,” though that would hardly be my term for it. The crisis of faith came a long time ago, but this year I was able to finally put my feelings about my religious faith, or lack thereof, into some kind of working order and embrace my agnosticism. One of the key elements in helping me through my own wrestling match was the testimony (if I may appropriate that word) of Julia Sweeney on the subject of the absence of faith and her acceptance, as a fellow ex-Catholic, of atheism, in particular her wonderful CD Letting Go of God, which I encountered about four years ago. (Atheism expresses the certainty of God’s absence, whereas agnosticism rejects religious certainty and acknowledges that there is no way to know one way or the other.)

But even more important was the confluence of my desire to work through the implications of agnosticism with the release of a book which I’m sure I’ll consider important to me for the rest of my life, Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt. In the book, Bugliosi approaches all elements of religious faith, primarily the mythology of Christianity and the writing of the Bible, but also Judaism, Hinduism and Muslim faith—in fact, the very concept of faith itself—as well as the numerous hypocrisies and inconsistencies that arise from them, from (not surprisingly) an entirely logical point of view. (If you’re thinking that, well, logic has no place within a system of faith, Bugliosi would probably agree that faith is certainly not based on logic, but disagree with the idea that logic cannot be applied to examine fallacies based on faith.) I was even lucky enough to see Bugliosi speak on the book over the summer and talk to him briefly.

What does this have to do with the Year of Our Lord 2011 in movies? Well, it turns out there was plenty of relevancy to the subject of faith and what the late great Warren Zevon once called “the vast indifference of heaven” present in the movies I saw this year, and each encounter helped me process my own feelings and grope around with what would come to be my own understanding. I would not classify myself in any way as a clinically depressed person, though after reading and absorbing Bugliosi’s book and coming to my own conclusions about what an acceptance of God’s absence really meant, it was not a leap at all to accept the release, the freedom of obliteration that Kirsten Dunst experiences at (SPOILER ALERT) the apocalyptic conclusion of Melancholia as a kind of upbeat ending. This is, after all, the apocalypse brought down to the expressly personal—how depression becomes an interior Armageddon— not a Roland Emmerich epic where part of the “fun” is watching the digitized spectacle of hundreds of millions of people being flushed to their doom. And by the way, I’m not in any way saying that whatever one’s religious beliefs might be would necessarily have anything to do with interpreting Von Trier’s big-bang climax, or any other movie. I’m just saying that this is how the planets aligned for me.

But it might have something to do with my reaction to the other cosmic contemplation on screens this year, Terence Malick’s newly Academy-approved The Tree of Life. Malick’s perspective is one which holds not just the possibility but the likelihood that a guiding spiritual intelligence is responsible for the world as we know it (or at least as he shows it). It’s there not just in the film’s imagery but also implied in the ethereal, disconnected voices crossing all time and space and locations as they do here. It’s the film’s willingness to pluck us out of the sun-dappled comfort zone of Malick’s reverie of boyhood and back beyond the existence of the first men and women that suggested to me what might be on Malick’s mind regarding this spiritual presence, and Jim’s dino challenge led me to think that accusations of Malick being a bit too much of a flower child when it comes to nature are wrongheaded.

There's obvious validity to the point that most seem to take from the sequence-- the speculation as to a possible early instance of compassion in an earthly species. But nature here, however beautiful, is also a formidable, unruly, frightening thing, and I think if this possibility of compassion in inarticulate, non-logical, survival-oriented species like dinosaurs was the end-all, then, yes, that would strike me as a bit starry-eyed. This being Malick, however, it wouldn't be the end-all, would it? I see in the sequence all kinds of reminders, even if they don't manifest themselves fully (or at all), of the possibility of nature's rage, or at least its inhospitable quality. (It's the first thing I thought of when I saw those floating clumps of seaweed and thought about what they might be hiding, followed by the lovely imagery of all those hammerhead sharks cruising through the water as seen from far below.)

The sense of wonder mixed with the sense of foreboding is there right from the start of the sequence, through the formation of the fetal creature, staring out with eyes at once more fascinating and more fearful than those of the Star Child's, right on through to the celebrated dino encounter, in which we see the creatures on the move and at rest. It's a captivating, fascinating sequence that does, as Sheila suggested, give you room to kick the tires of your various responses to the film as a whole around a bit. It also made me wish Malick had built an entire feature around this alternate, allusive kind of perspective on planetary history instead. One Scanners reader made a more overt connection of the sequence to the main characters and observed:

"I saw, in what plays out between the two dinosaurs, a reflection of young Jack's relationship with his overbearing father, so it made me consider the story of the O'Briens as being something both personal and cosmic, repeating and reflecting in life since life's beginnings."

Or maybe the dominant dino, rather than discovering a strange, unlikely impulse of compassion, just got distracted by something else to go pounce on and rip to shreds.

It's very telling (at least to me) that, as captivating as the sequence is, as soon as that searching narration comes back in and the movie's main template reasserts itself, I immediately start to lose my patience, even in viewing the sequence out-of-context as Jim provided it, and I had to believe, when I first saw it, the possibility existed that I may have just lost my taste for cosmic rumination of this sort. That asteroid (or whatever it is) hits, implying the event that will lead to the extinction of all these mysterious creatures (one that Malick wisely leaves to the realm of Fantasia) and I'm agog all over again. And then Sean Penn stumbles in and suddenly I remember the uncomfortable seats and the sticky theater floor. Is this what it was like to be cast out of the Garden of Eden?

The movies I saw that dealt more overtly with religious faith, or religious hypocrisy, were even more of a mixed bag. The one I was most looking forward to was Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, which depicts a woman’s journey from a blooming religious awareness through her baptism and experience in a tightly-knit (some might say oppressive) church community, and into her own crisis of faith. (The movie is divided into chapters, with title cards like “Summons,” “Renegade,” “”Consumed” and “Wilderness” leading the way.) It’s fascinating to watch Farmiga’s character submerge herself in this culture—her genuine desire for spiritual transcendence is depicted not with arched eyebrows but with the kind of respect that movies do not often afford the depiction of religious identity. She sees a friend who speaks in tongues and cannot understand why she can’t feel the same flush of spiritual fire—to her it sounds “beautiful,” but her own attempts to “speak in the Spirit” signal her increasing desperation. Unfortunately, Farmiga signals her own intelligence too stridently when she does break away from the church and the script hits too many bullet points about male- dominated religious society a bit too squarely on the nose. Higher Ground maintains its respect for faith, but it doesn’t dig deeply enough into what it really means to lose it.

Better Higher Ground’s clumsy earnestness than Kevin Smith’s pompous blasts of righteous hot air, though. The indie director’s self-distributed Red State, a tone-deaf horror movie fashioned as a diatribe against religious fanaticism (and, as it turns out, the misguided federal aggression against it echoed in its gory Waco-esque second half), turns out to be the worst sort of preaching to the converted. Smith imagines what might happen if a group of horny high school boys are held hostage and tortured by a Christian fundamentalist sect not unlike the membership of Fred Phelps’ Westboro Baptist Church. But the spectacularly unpleasant result feels like what it must be like to get stuck between two opposing sides at a Phelps protest—it’s a harangue rather than an examination of the impulses of fanatical belief or even a good piece of pulp drama, and everybody, including the director, comes off looking bad. (Well, everybody but Michael Parks, who manages to deliver a real, fiery, magnetic performance.) Smith even directly references Phelps in the dialogue and consequently lets his real-life target off the hook—when a cop refers to the religious whackos in question, another character makes sure to distinguish between Phelps (apparently just a crackpot) and these guys, the villainous bloodthirsty Christians of the movie, who are really dangerous. (Way to avoid that lawsuit!) If you’re looking for genuine Phelps-inspired outrage, better to see Fall from Grace and deal with the real thing than sit through Kevin Smith’s ugly tirade and watch him pat himself on the back for 90 minutes.

I also found myself contemplating my own journey toward a position on faith while watching movies as disparate as Chang-dong Lee’s Poetry; Asif Kapadia’s splendid and unusual documentary Senna, about the Brazilian Formula One racer Ayrton Senna, about whom I knew nothing when I began watching the film (Thanks for the recommend, Jason!); Richard Press’s Bill Cunningham New York, the fashion photographer about whom I was also clueless; and Steven Spielberg’s magnificent War Horse.

Specifically, there is a moment in BCNY in which the filmmaker/interviewer, after having us spend about an hour in his subject’s garrulous, irascible, eccentric presence, asks him personal questions which he insists Cunningham can defer answering if he so chooses. The first, about his sexuality, is greeted by Cunningham with semi-guarded candor and humor. But the second query, about the role of religious observance in Cunningham’s life, finds Cunningham lowering his head and retreating into an uncomfortably long silence, from which he eventually emerges and offers some hesitant connections between the ritual of church and his family’s working-class background. It’s an emotionally devastating moment, coming as it does amongst all the celebration of Cunningham’s working methodology, one that speaks to conflicts well-hidden whose presence, however briefly glimpsed, offers sublime dimensions in a character portrait that accent the sensitivity of the documentary as a whole.

War Horse touched me in ways that went beyond concerns of faith, though it is certainly emblematic of a certain kind of faith, in humanity, in our connection with creatures some might see as beneath us. To reference Jason’s previous plea, if the movies must move us then for me faith that this one might do so, and profoundly, was well rewarded. The movie’s power goes beyond Spielberg’s obvious mastery of a certain kind of old-fashioned epic moviemaking, which is obviously not enough for some. (I’ve heard War Horse derided as the most lavish Disney movie ever made.) For me the experience became a reminder of the ways that a movie—any movie-- can transport us emotionally, spiritually, even when the heartstrings are not being plucked. (I’ve already overstayed my welcome in the Tree House today, so I promise I’ll have more to say in my year-end round-up about War Horse.)

Your speculation, Jason, about releasing movies anonymously really resonated with me, however, because I was thinking the same thing when I saw both War Horse and The Tree of Life. Not that both artists (and yes, product of Hollywood and unreliable as he may be, I do consider Spielberg an artist) wouldn't be instantly identifiable by what’s on screen, but I wonder how much of the distaste for Spielberg’s movie, and consequently the reverence, or at least the heightened expectations for Malick’s, would be adjusted if audiences (or perhaps more to the point, critics) didn’t know going in who the director of each film was. I believe that if all context could be removed and War Horse could be viewed outside of one’s negative or positive notions of what Spielberg brings to the table—say, if it were presented as a lost wide-screen classic from the ‘50s—some of the resistance to its confidence as a piece of filmmaking might be eroded.

Of course this is never going to happen, for reasons you’ve already articulated, Jim. There’s no way to approach a movie without at least a few preconceived expectations, especially in this day and age where publicists and the Internet all but assure what little mystery there may be about any given movie can be potentially decoded without having to see the actual thing. But I also really appreciate what you said about bias:

I'm all for 'bias' as much as I am for 'elitism'… of course, I treasure those rare opportunities to see a movie 'cold,' without knowing much of anything about it except, maybe, for a few names of those involved. Sometimes (at screenings or film festivals) I've known even less than that. But what some people call 'bias' is really better described as experience, intelligence, passion.”

I haven’t yet seen The Descendants, and from what I’ve experienced of Alexander Payne’s previous movies, as well as what I’ve seen in clips and, yes, positive and negative reactions from writers whom I trust, I suspect that the movie may not be for me. Of course I’ll still go see it, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some preconceived notions as to what it might be like, and what my reaction to it might be like. However, the movie ultimately must prove itself, and I trust myself to be able to react to what I’m seeing, whether it conforms to my biased assumptions or not, and to react honestly. Because really, there’s about as much objectivity at work in the art of film criticism as there is in network TV journalism. And anyway, I’m not interested in anyone who calls themselves an “objective” critic, as if one could separate one’s personal experience from how one responds to a movie and then articulates that response. The difference lies in the ability to prove the case about one’s observations, even after acknowledging that bias. This past year I discovered that I have faith, if you will, in my ability to see what’s in front of me, to put less stock in mythology and predigested interpretation, be it applied to matters of art or the spirit. And I still think there’s room for faith in the movies too.


Dennis Cozzalio is the proprietor of the blog you are now reading as well as the gatekeeper of the Tree House. Come on in and grab a brew. Don’t cost nothin’.


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Sheila O'Malley said...

This is just damn beautiful, Dennis.

Jason McGensy said...

I wrote on my blog (shameless plug!) that with his performances in Of Gods and Men and The Princess of Montpensier, Lambert Wilson had produced the most serious argument for real, contemplative faith in this one year than any other year of movies that I've seen.
Higher Ground has been on my must see list since I saw Vera Farmiga discussing it in an interview back in the spring; unfortunately it never played around here and doesn't hit video til next month.

Unfortunately, 2011 was also a year which saw Salvation Boulevard squander a brilliant cast (Greg Kinnear, Marisa Tomei, Pierce Brosnan, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Harris) on a comedic(?)-thriller about the cover-up of an accidental homicide by a mega-church pastor. Depicting the churchgoers as overzealous, unthinking fanatics instead of as real people completely undercuts what, conceptually, is a very intriguing premise about how the cult (no pun intended) of personality surrounding a mega-watt pastor could cause internal dissonance among the faithful in the event of a scandal or even scandalous allegations. The only ostensibly sane people in the movie were the two on the outside of church (and the pastor himself, portrayed as an amoral charlatan working a real-estate deal).
We saw something similar late in the year; though it's not exactly a church, look at the range of reactions to Joe Paterno in the wake of the Sandusky scandal; from passionate defense to complete reappraisal.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Thanks, Sheila.

Jason, I suspect this is a subject that contemporary American movies may have difficulty ever getting "right," and maybe that has to do with the current nasty political climate. Those who make faith-based movies like the "Left Behind" series and Kirk Cameron's efforts are concerned mainly with proselytizing. On the other end of the spectrum filmmakers who are looking to score easy satirical points at the expense of true believers as well as hypocrites are likely to take the Kevin Smith broadside tack (as, apparently, the makers of Salvation Boulevard did) rather than dig deeper and try to really examine what it means to carry serious religious conviction in this country today.

I continue to be fascinated with the subject, but I don't know that it's one that fiction films have ever come close to doing justice to. And as soon as I press "post" I'll probably think of a couple of good exceptions to that generalization. I hope so!

Steven Boone said...

That asteroid (or whatever it is) hits, implying the event that will lead to the extinction of all these mysterious creatures (one that Malick wisely leaves to the realm of Fantasia) and I'm agog all over again. And then Sean Penn stumbles in and suddenly I remember the uncomfortable seats and the sticky theater floor. Is this what it was like to be cast out of the Garden of Eden?

Just one of the priceless passages here. And the closing lines are sublime, downright prayerful. (If there were a trailer for post #16, you'd have to go with my blurb. :-) )

I missed HIGHER GROUND and haven't yet seen WAR HORSE, but, after reading this piece, they're both a priority.

Jason, aside from easy picks like THE RAPTURE and THE APOSTLE I'm drawing a blank on exemplary "religious faith" flicks, but, like you, I know that others will pop up as soon as I hit PUBLISH. The Lawd werks in mysterious ways.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Steven, I will definitely use your blurb! Thanks so much for your kind words.

And I can't believe I forgot about The Rapture. I only wrote about it some six months ago when the world was scheduled to end. It's a brilliant movie and exactly what I was bemoaning the lack of-- movies that are about what it really means to have religious faith, or what it means to lose it. (I should also see The Apostle again-- I remember thinking it was kind of misshapen when I saw it years ago, but it seems it belongs in this conversation.)

John Severa said...

The only films that come to my mind that take faith seriously are Pasolini's The Gospel According to St. Matthew as well as Diary of a Country Priest and Ordet.

Peet Gelderblom said...

Completely awe-struck by the beauty of this post. There's plenty left to believe in, my friend. Your words are proof of that.