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June 2016

52 Movies: Week 26 - Shotgun Stories

About once a month or so I browse the new release section of my local video store. Most of these stores have gone the way of the dinosaur, but this one is part of a national chain, Family Video, and seems to be doing quite well. I’ve stumbled across some interesting films there, mostly indie releases, and Shotgun Stories was one of these. Picking it up and reading the description, the name of the producer caught my eye. It was David Gordon Green, whose own film Snow Angels I had watched and liked. On the strength of that, and on the appeal of the synopsis, I took it home. I did not really know what to expect from a film from a first-time director and a cast of (to me) unknowns, but I ended up being very pleasantly surprised.

The story concerns two sets of half-brothers and the escalating feud that develops between them when the eldest son of the older set insults their newly deceased father at his funeral. This man had been an abusive drinker in his first family, but after leaving them cleaned himself up, got religion, and became a moderately successful farmer, fathering four more sons with his new wife. The original three Hayes boys, Son, Boy, and Kid (their impersonal names seem to reflect their father’s lack of interest in them) have been raised by their mother, a bitter, spiteful woman who transferred her animosity towards her ex-husband and his new family onto her sons. At one point in the story after a particularly hurtful incident, Son comes to tell his mother what has happened. She has no response, to which he says "You raised us to hate those boys, and we do. And now it's come to this."  That could sum up the theme of the story which, as one reviewer has said, brings classical, even Biblical drama down to the scale of small town life. Point being, it’s all ultimately human, whether the antagonists are Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus, or the two sets of Hayes brothers.

The film runs for only an hour and a half or so, but takes its time in a somewhat Malick-esque fashion. Wide, lingering landscape shots set the tone, and sometimes serve as links between the dramatic scenes. The dialogue is minimalist, but no less rich and telling for that. And despite the title, the violence is sporadic and brief, realistic, but not in a graphic or gory way. Oddly enough, this serves to make it more painful-looking when it does occur. The acting is all top notch, despite the largely unknown cast, but Michael Shannon is a standout as the eldest brother. He manages to communicate his character’s inner moral confusion with minimal speechmaking and facial expression, doing it all in a way that makes it all seem completely realistic. I don’t know any other actor currently working who’s able to make this minimalist approach work like Shannon does. When he’s in a scene you don’t want to take your eyes off him, because he’s able to communicate so much while seemingly using so little.

Much credit also must be given to first time director Nichols, who took a miniscule budget and made one of the best films of 2007. Seldom has a first time director, coming out of nowhere, demonstrated such maturity and confidence. The film is morally quite serious, and in no sense can be reduced to simply a “revenge picture.” As such, despite its rather simple plot, it’s a film which grows upon repeat viewings, and which can thus prompt a fair amount of discussion, especially for the viewer who’s interested in the human side of such dramas.

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Jeff Nichols has gone on to direct three additional films, all of them very good – Take Shelter, Mud, and Midnight Special. And he’s only 37, which means that he made Shotgun Stories when he was still in his 20’s. An auspicious beginning, I’d say.

—Rob Grano has a degree in religious studies which he's put to good use working on the insurance side of the healthcare industry for the past 20 years.  He's published a number of book and music reviews, mostly in the small press, and sometimes has even gotten paid for it. He lives outside of Pittsburgh, Pa.


An Interesting Brexit Reaction

From Damon Linker. Surely he exaggerates in saying that progressive beliefs have been "shattered," but they certainly have been shocked and challenged. 

But I suspect Angela Merkel is the real catalyst behind the outcome of the UK referendum. Not only did the German chancellor insist on admitting well over a million refugees and migrants from the Greater Middle East into the heart of Europe. Supporters of the policy have also made it clear on numerous occasions that they consider racism and xenophobia to be the only possible grounds for opposing her stand.... Merkel's grand progressive-humanitarian gesture has backfired badly — rekindling and potentially intensifying the very nationalistic solidarity that progressives once hoped the EU would dissolve or erase.

I wonder, too, about the influence of Mr. Obama's little jaunt across the ocean to instruct the British, in his distinctively condescending way, about the foolishness of leaving the EU. No way to measure that, I suppose. Rudy Guiliani shocked a lot of people a while back by opining that Obama does not love America:

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

It was a very harsh thing to say. But I think Guiliani is basically correct, as the famous "bitter clingers" remarks suggested. And I think Obama's basic view of Americans--that most of us are primitive, bigoted, superstitious creatures in need of general enlightenment and particularly in need of constant policing to prevent the spasms of mindless violence to which we are naturally prone--is similar to that of European progressives toward many or most of their countrymen, though I suppose all would agree that Americans are the worst.


Us And Our Bottled Water

I found this fascinating: the story of the growth of the bottled water industry, and the advertising that made it happen

This is an interesting case. I don't think advertising can make people buy something for which they don't feel a real need or  which isn't so rewarding in some way that people come to see it as a need, and which doesn't to some degree provide what it purports to provide. At least not over a period of years--little bubbles of basically nonsensical enthusiasm--fads--can probably be generated with little more than clever marketing. But bottled water seems to be somewhere between those. I suspect that most people who habitually drink bottled water have a vague idea that it's healthier than tap water, but as the article says for most people this is not true. So apparently it is satisfying a need that is either based on misinformation, uncorrected for decades now, or is just some purely emotional but nevertheless persistent phenomenon.

Not unrelated: 22 cheery facts about discarded plastic, of which water and soft drink bottles no doubt constitute a large portion.


52 Movies: Week 25 - Jean de Florette

Jean de Florette came out in France in 1986, and by 1987 in England everyone was talking about it. It was the must-see film of that year, and very rightly so, I think. It was the last year of my PhD research at London University, and I saw it in a London movie theatre with a friend. At the time I was locked into the struggle to complete my PhD, and impracticality versus worldliness was on my mind. I told my friend that the movie dramatized the defeat of the romantic, unworldly ‘Jean’ by the down to earth, farming Soubeyrans. My friend did not agree, arguing that the younger Soubeyran, Ugolin, also has a dream, of planting carnations on the land which Jean inherits. Certainly the movie is about the battle to possess this rich soil which Ugolin covets for his carnation project, but which the urbanite, tax-collector Jean has inherited from his mother.

Jean does not know he is in a battle with Ugolin Subeyran, or with Ugolin’s wicked uncle, César Subeyran. This ignorance on his part underlies much of the tragic irony of the movie, as we witness repeated scenes of lies, hypocrisy and double-entendre on Ugolin and César’s part, and of misunderstanding and false confidence on the part of the outsider, Jean. The Soubeyrans lie not only to Jean but withhold essential information from the villagers about him. So the hunchback Jean, his wife and their little girl are utterly isolated by this stream of bare faced lies and misinformation.

The basic lie told by the Soubeyrans in fact concerns a stream! Ugolin needs water for his planned carnation crops, and there is not sufficient on his own property. There is an old abandoned stream on Jean’s property. Ugolin and his uncle deliberately block the stream, and conceal its existence from Jean. Jean has arrived with his own romantic project, of escaping city life and breeding rabbits on his property. Without water, his hopes literally shrivel, his plants dying of thirst and his rabbits starving for lack of feed. Jean is destroyed by his increasingly heroic efforts to create a water source on his land.

The great irony of the film is that Jean has come to the French countryside in search of authenticity. Ugolin has never heard of that, and wonders if it is a plant which he will grow.

I remember, and I imagine most people, remember Jean de Florette for the wrenching performance as the hunchback by Gerard Depardieu. Its almost as tragic as the film itself to think of the fantastic promise of the young Depardieu, who displayed outstanding talents as an actor, and of his latter days when he has become famous for demeaning, drunken antics. Watching the film for a second time, after thirty years, though, I was struck by the wonderful, fox-like performance of Yves Montand as César Soubeyran, wicked through to the marrow, and of his weaker and more conflicted nephew, played by Daniel Auteil. All three of the main actors give brilliant performances in their roles.

The character played by Jean de Florette has been a staple of French comedy since Molière: he is the romantic idealist, whose ideas about how to live in the world come from textbooks, manuals and mathematical formulae. The comedy occurs when the rubber of the mathematical formulae hits the road of real life. So the city-dweller versus the earthy-peasants theme is a basic motif of French comic drama, and there is absolutely no doubt that the peasants have the upper hand, because their grasping nature leads them to grasp reality more firmly. Based on a novel by Maurice Pagnol, Jean de Florette is clearly no comedy because what happens to Jean is the stuff of tears, not of humour. But nor is the movie exactly a tragedy, because Jean lacks any tragic grandeur.

Week25-jeanprayer

The movie has a direct religious theme from the start. The news that the land the Soubeyrans covet has slipped from their grasp comes to them in a letter from a priest’s housekeeper, who states that the man who has inherited the land, Jean Crespin is ‘a hunchback by the will of God’. In a great, unforgettable and climactic scene, when rain comes but falls on the other side of the mountain, not on his own crops, Jean cries out to ‘God’, demanding to know if he is ‘up there’ and if so how he could inflict such injustice on a hunchback. At the end of the movie, the exultant Soubeyrans perform an inverted ‘baptism’ of themselves in the gushing spring, blackening or blaspheming the sacrament. Jean de Florette is thus about the most typical of French theological questions, the absence of God. It may have been the last great burst of French Jansenism before the culture lapsed into secularism.

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—Grumpy is a professor of theology in the Midwest.


Perhaps the Holy Spirit sent us Francis...

...to show us that we don't have to take seriously everything a pope says.

I said that to my wife earlier and she laughed, but I'm only half-joking, at most. The remark was prompted by the latest round of confusion (to say the least) created by some of his off-the-cuff remarks. (Basic story here, a couple of commentaries here and here.) I'm beginning to shrug these things off: Oh, there he goes again, never mind.

That's not really the attitude I'd like to have.  But this sort of thing is a pattern with Francis, and you can either spend a lot of time and anxiety trying to get it straight and fit it in with the Church's established teachings, or just...shrug it off. 

And really, when it comes to the everyday chatter of a publicly loquacious pope, is there anything wrong with that? We were blessed over most of the past thirty years with two popes who combined depth of intelligence and insight with skill and care in expressing themselves. John Paul II especially was such a giant, and reigned for so long, and was so beloved by those of us who felt some kind of course correction was in order after the mistakes following Vatican II, that we tended to become papal maximalists. We were glad to see the pope exercising his authority in defense of the Church's teaching, of course, which is as it should be. But we--and really the whole world--tended to view the pope's every utterance as definitive and moreover to expect a steady stream of detailed and authoritative commentary on everything from him. This is really not the way the papacy has worked historically. It's only been made possible by modern communications. And it's not a burden that we can expect every pope to handle well.

Roughly twenty years ago, after the Catechism had been published, John Paul began making some fairly strong statements against capital punishment. I didn't (and don't) have a very strong opinion on that subject. But I had a conversation with a friend who was very opposed to it that troubled me--not because I was opposed to the pope's judgment that capital punishment should be used only rarely if at all, but because of something my friend said. He quoted then-Cardinal Ratzinger as saying that the Catechism might need to be revised to reflect what John Paul was teaching.

I found this shocking. It seemed to me that it was much too close to what many outside the Church believe--erroneously, I thought--to be the way the papacy works: that the pope has the authority to revise old doctrines or make up new ones as he pleases, or perhaps as the Spirit moves him. 

That is in fact wrong, of course. Francis's habit of speaking spontaneously and sometimes carelessly, then having to clarify or correct what he said, is a good reminder that the authority of the papacy and the protection of the Holy Spirit don't necessarily extend to casual conversations of a specific pope. 

***

This reminds me: a month or so ago I posted a complaint about some remarks made by Francis on the relationships among Christianity, Europe, and Islam. I modified the complaint after reading the full interview from which the remarks were taken, but still had some significant reservations. Here is a piece by Carl Olsen in Catholic World Report which articulates some of the same reservations I had. Reviewing this, I'm more convinced that we ought to start treating these more or less impromptu remarks by Francis as just that, as if they were part of a rambling and often speculative conversation with a friend, not fully-considered and definitive statements.


David Bentley Hart on Animals and Salvation

A good piece, I think. That is to say, I agree with his view. He's a little rough on the young Thomist he's arguing with, but I can sympathize with his exasperation.

I sympathize with the Thomist insistence on precision, too. We need it. But in some hands it can result in a maddening narrowness. I lost my temper with a Thomistically-inclined fellow once when he insisted that because the word "conservative" can't be defined rigorously it must have no meaning at all. Like a lot of things in life. 


52 Movies: Week 24 - Napoleon Dynamite

This series has so far had a definite tilt toward the Serious or Very Serious Film. I guess the lightest one up until now was my Marx Brothers contribution. Well, this week I'm moving the needle a bit further in that direction. Napoleon Dynamite could reasonably be described as pure fluff. So could a Marx Brothers comedy, of course, but the Marxes have attained classic status, which makes lending attention to them a mildly serious business. I'm suggesting that you see Napoleon, if you haven't already, for sheer fun. It soars to no great height and plumbs no great depths, but it's hugely enjoyable--to my taste, anyway. 

 It seemed for a while some years ago (ten? fifteen? I'm not sure) that the word "quirky" occurred much too frequently in reviews of movies and popular music. Since Napoleon Dynamite was released in 2004, maybe it was part of that quirkiness boom. At any rate I don't think I've ever seen a movie that more deserved the description, in fact almost defines the term. But I don't know how I could possibly communicate that quality in this review, so I'll just have to give you a sketch of the characters and plot, and a clip or two.

Napoleon Dynamite is a nerdy high-school student. As far as I can recall the name is never explained, but it's been some years since I saw the movie, so I could be wrong. Napoleon and his equally nerdy older brother Kip live with their gruff grandmother in a small town in Idaho. I don't recall that the missing parents are explained. The locale is rendered with a physical and cultural flatness (though there are mountains in the distance), in slightly washed-out color, that serves as an image of the flatness of Napoleon and Kip's situation and aspirations.  

The brothers are pretty thoroughly ill-equipped to triumph in the contests of adolescence. Napoleon wants to acquire "skills"--"You know, like numchuck skills, bow-hunting skills, computer hacking skills"--which will make him attractive to girls. He has no skills, and he is not attractive to girls. Kip is similar. He claims to spend a lot of time "chatting with babes" on the Internet, but this also seems dubious, at least initially. Quite early in the movie their grandmother is injured and is out of the picture for the rest of the story. Her place as nominal caretaker of the two boys is taken by their Uncle Rico, a fairly obnoxious fellow whose life peaked when his high school football team might have won the state championship "if coach woulda put me in fourth quarter." Rico thinks of himself, or wants to think of himself, as a man of the world, but he does not competently navigate even this very small world.

We are invited to laugh at these losers, and we do, but for the most part it's not cruel laughter. This is in the end a very sweet film. I think it's the combination of sharp satire and sweetness that makes it so engaging and memorable. And quirkiness, of course.

Napoleon gets involved with a couple of other outsiders: a Mexican boy named Pedro and a sweetly shy girl, Deb, who inflicts great suffering on herself by selling "home-woven handicrafts" door-to-door to make money for college. Pedro decides to run for class president. Napoleon gets involved in the campaign and also woos Deb in the most hapless way you can imagine. Silly things happen: there are Deb's glamour photo business, Rico's herbal breast-enhancement business, a piñata that looks like the most popular girl in school, Pedro's menacing cousins, a soul mate for Kip.... I don't think I'm giving away too much in saying that there is an absurd but highly satisfying happy ending. If it were on Netflix I'd watch it tonight.

Here is an early scene which includes Grandma.

 

Ever since I saw this movie I've had trouble saying the word "quesadilla" without prefixing it with "dang" and pronouncing the "ll" as in "laughter."

Uncle Rico reflects:

 

Just to cover my bases, in case you watch it on my recommendation and don't like it, I'll mention that there is by no means universal agreement with my view: Roger Ebert hated it. But note that when I googled "napoleon dynamite ebert review" I got a number of items disagreeing strongly with him.

--Mac is the proprietor of this blog.