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, 6-5-2019: The Man In The Moon (1991)

Title: The Man In The Moon
Director: Robert Mulligan
Country of Origin: USA
Year: 1991
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? kind of (first since an edited cut on TV 20 years ago)

Coming of age drama made in the ’90s, set in the ’50s about love and loss and I guess everything else that coming of age dramas were about in that era (I’m looking at you My Girl). I can’t say I’ve watched many of the latest generation of coming of age films, but The Man In The Moon stands out above just about any I can remember from any era. Director Robert Mulligan (To Kill A Mockingbird) doesn’t set a foot wrong throughout the 100 minute runtime. The film is sensitive to the realities of life on the cusp of childhood and young-adulthood without ever really indulging in the sappy sentimentality that accompanies most of us when we look back on our youth. The Man In The Moon instead feels like a film fortifying itself for the world to come, not without optimism, but with a dose realism and an eye for the things that matter most, the things that will last. A lot is made about Reese Witherspoon in this, her debut, and for good reason. She absolutely lights up the screen with a performance that lights up the screen and puts veteran actors to shame. Maybe it’s the fact that she was truly still a kid yet to come into her own that makes her perfect for The Man In The Moon. Sam Waterston, too, is at his best as her hard-working father, a man of few, but always poignant words. Incredible cinematography by Freddie Francis (The Innocents).

Daily Projections, 6-4-2019: Miquette et sa mère (1950)

Title: Miquette et sa mère
Director: Henri-Georges Clouzot
Country of Origin: France
Year: 1950
Screening format: Blu-ray
Setting: home
First viewing? yes

A film Clouzot apparently had little interest in making and greeted with equal disinterest by critics and audiences alike, though still very funny if you ask me. Two timid lovebirds (Miquette and Urbain) kept apart by a scheming uncle-Marquis who has designs of his own on Miquette as she strives to make it as an actress in order to make jealous the lover she believes has jilted her. The humor is broadly farcical, blend of irony and slapstick, not unlike Preston Sturges, though considerably more French and likely to have scandalized American audiences of the time (e.g. a particular ancestor is well regarded for having had the Sun King). The very best scenes are played between Danièle Delorme (Miquette) and Bourvil (Urbain). The latter a gifted physical comedian who plays the bumbling idiot well and the former with a gift for portraying the coquettish ingenue. Something in the way Delorme glides through the film, even in the comedic moments, the way she dodges an aspiring lover’s advances while never seeming to notice them, is almost balletic. There is an air about her performance which recalls…someone, though I can’t say for sure who. Perhaps Sidney Fox in Once In A Lifetime. Miquette et sa mère gets a bad rap for some reason, though you won’t hear it from me.

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.

Introducing: The Lewton Ledger

The Val Lewton Papers, in all their microfilmed glory

What began for me as a last minute trip to Washington, D.C. to burn up some rewards miles last week turned into a frantic, intensive study session in a windowless room deep in the Library of Congress once I learned that the Library also happened to be home to a collection known as The Val Lewton Papers. I am, of course, a huge fan of Mr. Lewton (as so many are). The symbolism and classical literacy of the films he produced at RKO were instrumental in inspiring me to look closer at the often neglected theological content buried in popular cinema. So, of course, once I learned that, after a brief vetting process, I could have free access to some of the man’s personal papers, I had to jump at the chance.

After proving my identity to the folks in the main office—the Library of Congress’s collections are open to just about anyone (and I mean anyone, not just Americans) over the age of 18—I wound my way through the series of nondescript tunnels that connect the library’s buildings until I eventually found my way to the Manuscripts Reading Room where I was vetted again and pitched my research to the folks in charge before being allowed access to this particular branch of the library. Once I was officially cleared, I put in my request for the Val Lewton Papers and waited.

After about 10 minutes, five reels of microfilm were delivered to my workstation. Five reels of microfilm don’t really look that impressive in person and, frankly, it is a bit disappointing at first for a nerd like me to I will not be allowed to interact directly with the objects of my fascination. But my disappointment faded quickly once I had loaded the film into the machine and began to wade into the information at hand.

At first, I tried to read everything. Taking notes on what I found interesting and skipping over the rest. But after an hour, no matter how far I advanced the film, the supply of unviewed film seemed the same as when I had started. AND I WAS ONLY ON THE FIRST REEL! It was then that I really began to understand why the Library of Congress policy allows researchers to scan materials for research purposes. I have no idea how many thousands of pages of letters, journals, scrapbooks, and screenplays are included on those five reels, but it was far more than I could have ever consumed in my three days at the library. The best I could do was scan anything that looked remotely pertinent and bring it home to work on here.

So, here we are. I have a flash drive full of Val Lewton documents and only a rough idea what they contain. Now, I can’t simply upload them somewhere for you—there are signs all over the Library of Congress saying that’s not allowed—and besides, that wouldn’t be any fun for me. What I can do is give you a little window into my research process.

With that, let me welcome you to The Lewton Ledger. As I read through this digital stack of documents, I’ll keep you posted of any possible insights or hunches I have as to what made this master of psychological horror tick. So far, I can tell you this much, young Val Lewton was head over heels crazy in love with his wife Ruth. Like, seriously, it’s so cute.

Also, he loved boats.

Introducing “Daily Projections”

For years, filmmaker and critic Peter Bogdanovich kept files of notes on every film he saw. As he got older and viewed the same films again and again, he would add to his notes, documenting both his evolving opinions and his growth as a critic. Ever since I read a few of these cards which he shared over at IndieWire a few years ago, I have wondered if I had the discipline to do the same.

For the last few days I have been recording my initial impressions of every movie I’ve watched on a template measuring 4″x 6″. So far, I am really liking the experience. I have found that the limited space forces me to get to the point and not get bogged down in minutiae while still allowing room to record interesting observations that may be worth exploring more in depth in the future. And the knowledge that I will be writing something about everything has made me a more engaged viewer.

Over all, I like the way it has made me think about the movies I am watching and I intend to keep it up for as long as I can. And, in order to hold myself accountable, I am going to share them here as well. Which is why I am introducing “Daily Projections” (it’s a working title). I still consider in-depth essays about onscreen theology (or as I prefer to call it: “Jesus at the movies”) to be the main purpose of this site, but those take a long time and I watch a lot of other movies (at least 300 every year). I’ve got to keep my skills sharp as I take those deeper dives.

Because of the way WordPress is set up, these Daily Projection posts will appear within the main feed on the home page, but the individual posts will also be anthologized (probably by date) under the “Daily Projections” tab at the top of the page (or in the drop down menu on mobile).

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 .