Archive for December, 2008
(Rating: **** / ****)
It’s 1964, and strict disciplinarian Sister Aloysius (Meryl Streep), the principal of a New York City Catholic school, suspects her convivial, progressive supervisor Father Flynn (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) of having an “improper relationship” with the school’s first and only black student. Her paranoia is seemingly confirmed by the young and inexperienced Sister James (Amy Adams), launching Sister Aloysius into a relentless, surprising persecution of Flynn.
Without a doubt (ba-dum-tssssh) one of the most thought-provoking, theologically and ethically dense films I’ve seen in recent years, John Michael Shanley’s Doubt succeeds on so many levels. First and foremost, it’s a fitting vehicle for three of the most talented actors in Hollywood (Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and a compelling introduction (for me, at least) to the actress Viola Davis, whose brief appearance in the film has generated worthy Oscar buzz. At the same time, it’s a dark and compelling discussion of certainty and ambiguity, of tolerance and propriety, of progressiveness and endurance. In addition, it tackles the gender roles still evident in (specifically) the Catholic Church (and, more universally, Christian institutions everywhere). Yes, it’s not terribly “cinematic” (Shanley directs his own adaptation of his own play, which is more than enough literary inbreeding to explain why much of the movie still feels like a play) and it certainly doesn’t provide any easy answers or clear resolutions. But, for me, that’s its best quality.
I saw the film with my mom and brother, and the conversations it subsequently generated were engrossing. It’s a perfect Lost Film, and I can’t wait for similar conversations to crop up on campus later this spring.
What’s the deal with major directors making audiences love the two arguably worst Presidents in U.S. history? First, Oliver Stone presented a deeply empathetic George Bush in his psychotropic biopic W., and now Ron Howard (in his most mature, even-handed film to date) gives us a Richard Nixon whose fierce snarl and placid faĂ§ade belie his deep-seated fears of personal inadequacy and historical disregard. The film pits two unlikely adversariesâ€”the urbane TV talk show host David Frost and the hunched, decidedly uncharismatic 37th Presidentâ€”in a boxing match of wits and wiliness. While the disgraced President wrestles to redeem his own faltering legacy, Frost struggles to pull his career out of a precipitous nose-dive by personally financing this risky interview.
Howard, most famous for the mundane Apollo 13 and the ironically formulaic A Beautiful Mind, creates in Frost/Nixon a genuinely awe-inspiring film, anchored by a gravitas performance by Frank Langella (as Nixon) and an equally resourceful Michael Sheen (as Frost). Langella has already picked up a Golden Globe nom for Best Performance, and deservedly so; but in a year of stiff competition (if Mickey Rourke’s turn as a deposed WWF-style champ is as good as the trailer lets on, he’s got a solid lock on that Oscar statue, in my opinion), will Langella’s bold embodiment of a shockingly complex and surprisingly empathetic antagonist win voter’s accolades?
In recent days, SAB has received several letters expressing concerns regarding our decision to screen Burn After Reading as part of the Lost Films series. As there may be others in the community who share these concerns, but did not communicate with us directly, this letter outlines our rationale for selecting the film, based on the four criteriaâ€”cultural relevance, communication of truth, artistic merit, utility/appropriateness for audienceâ€”we use in selecting all of the films in the Lost Films series. Messiah Collegeâ€™s Statement on Engaging Popular Culture affirms that making intelligent, culturally relevant art pleases God. We believe that in Burn After Reading, the Coen Brothers have created such art: a film that critiques both the decadence of human nature and the selfishness of modern American culture. We also now fully understand that the Lost Film series was not an appropriate venue to screen this film as some members of the community found it highly offensive.
As you may already know, Burn After Reading is the latest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, the filmmaking team behind the Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men and other critically acclaimed works like Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Blood Simple. The fact that these well-respected artists have produced yet another filmâ€”and that this film was well-received by critics (garnering a 79% rating on the review aggregator website www.RottenTomatoes.com)â€”deems Burn After Reading as culturally relevant. Of course, this is just one criterion SAB uses in selecting films for weekend showings.
The redeeming value of Burn After Reading, in the eyes of SAB, comes form the filmâ€™s ability to communicate truths about contemporary society through satire. As most critics noted in their reviews, Burn After Reading is a darkly comic face in keeping with much of the Coen Brothersâ€™ oeuvre (Fargo, The Ladykillers, etc.) The characters arenâ€™t rendered as realistic people, but as absurd caricatures of particular vices the Coens see as endemic: lust, greed, and pride. Linda (Frances McDormand) thinks that the only way to find love is through a perfect body (pride, vanity, lust for physical beauty) and works with her friend Chad (Brad Pitt) to blackmail a spy in order to pay for her cosmetic surgeries (greed). Harry (George Clooney) beds lots of women in an attempt to satisfy his carnal desires (greed, lust). Weâ€™re not supposed to like the characters in Burn After Reading because they represent human depravity. This film in no way glorifies these social ills; rather the Coen Brothers are critiquing contemporary society.
Burn After Reading exhibits artistic merit in its use of satire, a highly regarded literary technique that allows an artist to comment upon particular societal ills through the use of humor. We see this use of satire in the performances of the central characters. Each actor utilizes hyperbole in constructing his or her characterâ€™s persona, building on a kernel of truthâ€”every human possesses a sinful nature inclined toward greed, pride, or another viceâ€”but radically exaggerating this until we, as audience members, see the inherent flaws in each characterâ€™s worldview. Understanding this, we laugh when Harry (George Clooney) builds a sex chair for his wifeâ€”a mechanical device thatâ€™s absurd and totally devoid of the warm intimacy expected between people who have committed their lives to one another.
To be clear: the Coens are not graphic about sex in this film. Actual depictions of intercourse and nudity do not fit the Coen Brothersâ€™ purposes for Burn After Reading. The sex toy is depicted as an intimidating, Frankenstein-like monsterâ€”a symbol for the mechanical, non-intimate way that one character views sexâ€”and no character is shown using the toy for physical gratification. In fact, by the end of the film, the same character who builds the toy completely demolishes it in frustration as he realizes the consequences of his selfish acts. Again, this characterâ€™s promiscuity is in no way glorified (heâ€™s an unlikeable, non-heroic character).
But the Coens arenâ€™t content with simple, happy endings. The conclusion of the filmâ€”wherein Osborn (John Malkovich) kills Ted (Richard Jenkins) with a hatchetâ€”reinforces the Coensâ€™ belief that the good guys donâ€™t always win. It might not be a universally shared worldview, but as the (implied) particular perspective of two men who are active in shaping contemporary cinematic art, itâ€™s an important one to engage as intelligent, critical thinkers.
Critics have observed most of the elements weâ€™ve discussed above. For instance, Peter Howell of the Toronto Star wrote that â€śBurn After Reading nails the essential folly of humans pretending to be civilized.â€ť Lisa Kennedy of the Denver Post suggested that â€śthe ensemble is at once loose and pitch perfect. Hardly a one of them plays a wholly likable person, yet each reveals the desperate or stupid humanity of their characters.â€ť Reinforcing the filmâ€™s myriad approaches to farce, Salon.comâ€™s Andrew Oâ€™Heir noted, â€śThe film is hilarious in patches, shocking in patches, utterly convincing in patches and close to brilliant in patches.â€ť
The fourth criterion we useâ€”utility/appropriatenessâ€”weighs the first three criteria against the context in which the film will be shown. Some films are appropriate for a large screening without context, while others are appropriate for a discussion-focused venue (like a classroom, Popanonymous, etc.). In selecting Burn After Reading for a weekend showing in Parmer Cinema, SAB underestimated the extent to which the film would be offensive to some members of the community. We have heard your concerns and now believe that a discussion-based viewing in a setting such as Popanonymous would have been more appropriate.
Once again, thank you for your concern. As we program for the spring semester we welcome your ideas and suggestions regarding future films that we could bring to Parmer Cinema. Please send future considerations to Devin Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org. SAB encourages you to contact us directly to express interest and concern and to engage with our popular culture programming.6 comments