Daily Projections, 6-9-2019: Spring In A Small Town (1948)

Title: Spring In A Small Town
Director: Fei Mu
Country of Origin: China
Year: 1948
Screening format: DVD
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

Considered by many to be the masterpiece of the first great era of Chinese filmmaking, if not the greatest Chinese film of all time. A young wife trapped in a passionless marriage (I won’t say loveless, because I believe there is some love there) with an ailing husband becomes reacquainted with a long lost love who shows up on her doorstep one day after 10 years away because he also happens to be very close friends with her husband. She, of course, is forced to choose between her family and the one who got away. From the plot description alone, it sounds like a Satyajit Ray film (or at least a Tagore story). Some sensitive portrayals here, especially by Yu Shi and Wei Wei as the husband and wife, respectively. Spring In A Small Town often feels like it owes a great deal to the self-contained family dramas of Ozu and to Italian neorealism. Indeed, it is well situated within the general ethos of post-War drama. Though, at other times, certain editorial choices (cuts and transitions within an unchanging wide shot) seem to denote the passage of time and almost evoke the spirit of French New Wave a full decade ahead of Truffaut and Godard, even if they were, in fact, necessary quirks rather than stylistic choices. Lovely low-light scenes produce some beautifully shaded and shadowed images, particularly in the last half hour.

Daily Projections: The Clock (1945)

Title: The Clock
Director: Vincente Minnelli
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1945
Screening format: TV (TCM)
Setting: Home
First viewing? no

Could Vincente Minnelli’s whirlwind wartime romance The Clock have been made had it not been, well, wartime? In a sense, yes. Light speed romance movies had been made before (Lonesome: 1928) and since (Before Sunrise: 1995) with several others in between. But The Clock has a subtle lyricism about it that I don’t think can be found in similar films, and much of that is due to the wartime setting. Robert Walker is, after all, a soldier on leave, about to return to the front. As such, there is a cloud of potentially impending doom constantly hovering in the background. And, though characters rarely address it directly, they do live as though every moment is precious because there really may not be a future for them. It’s actually refreshing to see Judy Garland act without breaking into song at any point. And James Gleason is always a highlight of any film he appears in. But what is most remarkable about The Clock is the elegance with which the subject matter is treated. Minnelli never really resorts to melodrama or sappy romance, though the temptation must have been very real. The Clock is instead funny, romantic, suspenseful, heart-breaking and uplifting. It is genuinely sweet and unselfconscious and, like any whirlwind romance, over all too quickly.

Daily Projections, 1-11-2019: Winter Woman (1977)

Title: Winter Woman
Director: KIM Ho-sun
Country of Origin: South Korea
Year: 1977
Screening format: Streaming (YouTube)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: Winter Woman was, apparently, the best selling Korean film of the 1970s, based on a popular novel with a rather leftist message (at least for 1970s South Korea). I haven’t read the novel and I won’t pretend to be an expert on that period of Korean history. All I can say for sure is that Winter Woman, especially the first hour, tends to err on the side of confusing. I had to pause the film multiple times to consult a synopsis of the novel in order to understand what was happening on the screen only to find out come the end that Winter Woman the film is only kinda like the novel to the point that, if you changed the title and the character names, someone familiar with both could easily write off any similarities as coincidence. Anyway, the film made Chang Mi-hee a star in Korea, but so much of her performance is overshadowed by an overindulgence in non-diegetic sound (far too much reverb on all narrated segments and a soundtrack alternating between Bach and cheesy 1970s synthesizers). I know the point of the film is, ostensibly, the sexual autonomy of Korean women, which is all well and good, but I can’t help but think that I-hwa’s naïveté sets her up for trouble early on. Twice, she tells a man (different men) “I’ll go anywhere with you”. Not a good idea.

Daily Projections, 12-08-2018; Listen (2017)

Title: Listen
Director: Philippe Aractingi
Country of Origin: Lebanon
Year: 2017
Screening format: Streaming
Setting: Home
First viewing: Yes

Notes: Joud is a young recording engineer whose ears are his life until girlfriend Rana falls into a coma as a result of a hit and run accident, then his ears become hers. Inspired by the knowledge that coma patients can still hear sound, Joud is intent on coaxing Rana back to the waking world (which provides ample opportunity for the film’s sound editor, Rana Eid, to really strut her stuff). On its surface, perhaps, Listen is a film about love and commitment, but there’s more to it. Maybe it’s really about obsession or lost causes. Every major character is somehow lost within themselves: Rana within her own unconsciousness, Joud in his single-minded quest for a cure,and Rana’s sister Marwa with her pending marriage and desire for independence. The topic of fidelity (of men, of family, of Beirut itself) is broached many times while the questions of clinging to the past, living in the present, and planning for the future continually pull at each other. Is the fool the man who clings to the past or the one who forges full steam into the future? Or is it anyone who fails to embrace the two? There are issues at play here that I, having never actually lived in Lebanon, have only partial access to through the filter of my own relatives. Perhaps the woman in the coma is Lebanon itself, yet to truly awaken from its war-induced slumber. I don’t know. But that’s another question for another time. One I may never be fully equipped to answer.

Daily Projections, 12-1-2018: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2018)

Title: The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Director: Mike Newell
Country of Origin: UK
Year: 2018
Screening format: Streaming (Netflix)
Setting: Home
First viewing? Yes

Notes: Well acted and well executed Netflix drama about a young writer and an obscure book club. But it’s not really about that at all, is it? Guernsey is about the scars of war and the long, impossible healing process.At times predictable (all the way down to the troperific writerly montage) but enough small twists and intrigue to sustain the full two hours. (The Guernsey landscape itself is enough to carry half the weight, should that be necessary.)

All in all, a pleasant way to spend an evening. I only have one gripe with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society and that is this. Why, oh why are we still using handheld cameras to film static shots? You can’t find a tripod or a table or something?Aside from that (and my genuine curiosity as to how two dozen roses gifted at different times managed to stay fresh and in bloom over the span of at least a month) I have no complaints.

What is a “Christian film”?

Annex - Bergman, Ingrid (Stromboli)_NRFPT_02
Ingrid Bergman in Rosselini’s Stromboli, a film Éric Rohmer described as a conversion experience.

Inevitably, when writing a blog like this, it will become necessary to wrestle with the question: “What is a Christian film?”. I addressed it briefly in the FAQ, but it’s worth revisiting here. Wikipedia says it is “an umbrella term for films containing a Christian themed message or moral, produced by Christian filmmakers for a Christian audience, and films produced by non-Christians with Christian audiences in mind”. Note that the emphasis is on the faith of the audience – the customer – not the filmmakers. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but it’s not hard to read that as something of a cash grab.

I say this not as a criticism, but with a sense of frankness. If you grew up in suburbia in the 1990s (as I did), you know all about the Jesus business. Jesus-themed parody T-shirts, WWJD bracelets, Amish romance novels (don’t get me started): there’s nothing inherently wrong with them. But it’s only fair to acknowledge that we’ll forgive a multitude of aesthetic sins if you stamp a Bible verse on them. I myself went through a four year period where I listened exclusively to Christian rock music and, to quote one of my favorite bands from that era, All Star United, “this Jesus thing, it’s a smash hit!”. Even then, we knew on some level, what we were getting ourselves into.

The way I see it, Christian movies are just another facet of the Jesus merchandising juggernaut. And just as it was not wrong of me to limit my music listening to the likes of Dime Store Prophets or Seven Day Jesus over Belle & Sebastian or Radiohead, there is nothing wrong with someone limiting their movie-going to things like God’s Not Dead, God’s Not Dead 2, or God’s Not Dead 3 instead of Star Wars Episode 19: A Galaxy Even Farther Away or Fast and Furious 127. But let’s not forget, the Christian blockbuster did not exist until 2004 when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ finally convinced Hollywood of the purchasing power of church people. That doesn’t mean God didn’t go to the movies before 2004, you just had to look a little harder. And just as I eventually came to Radiohead and Belle & Sebastian as an adult, my concern is not so much what we consume when we make these faith-conscious viewing choices, but what we are missing when we play it safe.

Take the films of Eric Rohmer, for example, the elder statesman of the French New Wave, the philosophical godfather of the Cahiers du Cinéma. His films are, you might say, very French. His characters run around naked a lot, have plenty of affairs, and generally make a lot of bad decisions. If you were to make your movie watching decisions based on an arbitrary Scripture quotation threshold or a minimum “Jesus” quota (an actual idea I heard proposed multiple times in the ’90s to determine the “Christian-ness” of Christian music), you might see a lot of movies that affirm everything you already believe, but you’d never watch a single work by Rohmer, a devout Catholic and traditionalist who legitimately believed that the cinema was “a 20th century cathedral” and that “true cinema is necessarily a Christian cinema because there is no truth except in Christianity”. That sounds to me like the kind of filmmaker Believers should be flocking to, not hiding from.

In the 1970s, Paul Schrader (the man who wrote the screenplay for Taxi Driver) identified a style of filmmaking that expressed an ineffable sense of spiritual longing left unsatisfied by modern secularism. Not all of the movies I want to cover fit into Schrader’s definition of “transcendental cinema”, but that’s the kind of approach I want us to take as we dig into the last 125 years of movie-making. I want us to take an honest look at what we might be missing. You’ll hear enough at church and on your Christian radio about how you should see whatever it is that Kirk Cameron most recently slapped his name on. But are they telling you why it’s important that you watch Boris Karloff roam the streets of Edinburgh strangling people in The Body Snatcher? Because I will.

Further Reading:

Interview with Paul Schrader from the Globe and Mail (2017)

Toward a Definition of “Religious” CinemaChristianity Today (2014, paywall) – Note, I haven’t read the whole article as the bulk of it is “subscribers only”, but coming from CT, I imagine it’s well thought-out .