Lunacy/Sileni (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Lunacy (Šílení), a darkly comic 2005 horror film by celebrated Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer; based on two short stories by Edgar Allan Poe and drawing inspiration from the writing and philosophies of the Marquis de Sade, its an odd, quirky and disturbing foray into the horror genre by a director known for his odd, quirky and disturbing movies, featuring his trademark mixture of macabre puppetry and animation as well as his usual surrealist influences.  Like most of Švankmajer’s work, it initially received little attention outside of Europe (and the few remaining “art house” theaters), but it has since found an audience, alongside the rest of his canon, among the ranks of his loyal international cult following.

Though it begins, ostensibly, in a present day-setting, the story is quickly drawn anachronistically into the 18th Century, as its protagonist, Jean, is befriended by a wealthy and mysterious marquis (in full period garb) who travels by horse-drawn coach and is attended by a mute servant.  Jean is plagued by recurring nightmares in which two leering goons accost him in his sleep and attempt to forcibly restrain him with a straight jacket; after one such dream causes him to destroy his hotel room in a somnambulant struggle, the marquis comes to his aid by paying for the damages, and then invites the young man to travel with him to his home.  Jean soon discovers, however, that his new benefactor possesses a cruel streak; during his stay he is subjected to cruel pranks- including a bizarre and secretive nocturnal interment- and surreptitiously witnesses a blasphemous ritual in which God and morality are denounced and a young woman in chains is beaten and raped.  Eventually, he accompanies his host to a local asylum, where he is persuaded to remain as a voluntary patient in order to receive treatment for his nighttime disturbances.  His agreement to this arrangement, however, is in reality spurred by the presence there of the girl abused in the black mass, whom he fears to be trapped within the sinister machinations of the marquis and his friend who runs the institution.  Vowing to rescue her and expose the sadistic purposes of her captors, he sets about discovering the hidden truth of the hospital- a place where the inmates and staff are virtually indistinguishable, where chaos and debauchery seem to rampage unchecked, and where a dark secret lies hidden behind the walls, waiting to be set free.

Švankmajer (who provides a spoken introduction to the film in which he plainly states its purpose and emphatically proclaims it not to be “a work of art”) draws the  inspiration for his narrative from Poe’s stories, The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether and The Premature Burial, but the underlying thematic premise is derived from the views espoused by the notorious Marquis de Sade- upon whom the film’s primary antagonist is clearly based.  The argument of both the real and fictional marquis- that man is a product of nature, cruel and carnal by design, and that notions of God and morality are false constructs based in fear and designed to impose control over the weak and foolish- is the central idea which fuels the story, alongside the added intellectual exploration of two opposing methods to governing the insane: absolute control and absolute freedom.  As to the latter, the director states unequivocally in his prologue that the state of the modern world is a combination of the worst aspects of each of these methods, but- apart from this rather glib assessment- his film offers no real support for this theory beyond the extrapolations that can be made from the allegorical elements of the scenario.  Regarding man’s bestiality, however, Švankmajer gives us plenty of meat- literally.  Providing a sort of running commentary to the action are short segments, produced with the filmmaker’s familiar stop-motion techniques, featuring slabs of raw meat animated into performing various activities reminiscent of basic instinctual behavior- such as eating, fighting, and sexual intercourse-  continually reinforcing the idea of humanity as mere senseless flesh driven by primal impulses.  These vignettes, intercut with the main action, also serve to give Lunacy much of its “creep” factor, though as always in Švankmajer’s films, there is good amount of tongue-in-cheek humor that makes us grin even as we cringe.  On a less abstract level, within the narrative proper, the idea of man’s natural urge towards sex and cruelty is illustrated repeatedly in scenes best left for the viewer to discover for himself, with Jean and his enigmatic damsel-in-distress as the only representatives of sanity- as equated to decency, that is.  However, in keeping with the film’s source material, not to mention its creator’s penchant for surrealism, it is never exactly clear that our assumptions are true, and the question of what constitutes sanity- or decency, for that matter- is one which Lunacy leaves unanswered, choosing rather to provide cynical observation on the basic state of humanity.

Švankmajer has built his unique reputation with decades of imaginative filmmaking, blending live action with animation in ways that are at once deceptively simple and devilishly clever.  Influenced by an early career in puppet theatre, he has brought his traditional stagecraft sensibilities into his cinematic language, establishing himself as a genuine auteur with his shorts and feature films that incorporate not only the aforementioned stop-motion techniques, but claymation, a mixture of realistic and stylized scenery as well as puppets and live actors (and sometimes live actors dressed as puppets), and a generally theatrical style possessed of unmistakably ancient roots that stretch back to the Commedia dell’Arte and beyond.  Lunacy, however, like many of his recent works, utilizes a greater proportion of more-or-less straightforward live action footage; indeed, apart from the previously described meat-in-motion sequences, it contains relatively little of Švankmajer’s familiar visual trickery.  This is not to say the movie is short on the director’s usual delight in showmanship; throughout the story are numerous sequences that clearly draw from his love for the stage- the black mass, viewed from the perspective of an unseen audience (Jean peering through a window), is blatantly theatrical, and a tableau vivant of Delacroix’s La Liberté guidant le peuple is later staged by the marquis at the asylum, a nod to the historical de Sade’s direction of plays featuring other inmates when he was at Charenton asylum- as well as to Marat/Sade, the famous avant-garde dramatization of those real-life “productions.”  In addition, the trappings of theatre are scattered throughout the film- costumes, wigs, false facial hair- and the marquis’ entire persona seems to be a sort of performance, as if he is always centerstage in the theatre of his own life.  All of this plays into Švankmajer’s eternal fascination with illusion and the tricks of perception that allow us to be deceived by our own minds, which in turn fits neatly into the Poe-inspired horror scenario, hinging as it does on this very idea; further, the subject matter gives Lunacy‘s theatricality the specific flavor of true Grand Guignol, a style named for the 19th Century Parisian theatre that popularized the staging of horror spectacles, steeped in gore and blasphemy, known for inducing a kind of sexual response to their sensationalistic thrills- which is, of course, highly appropriate in a piece so infused with the spirit of De Sade.

Lunacy is not, of course, a play, and though it borrows much from the theatrical milieu, it also revels in its cinematic nature.  Švankmajer’s understanding of his medium is absolute; he directs with the confidence- even the cockiness- of someone like Hitchcock or Kubrick, delighting in his offbeat style and audaciously presenting his subversive ideas with imagery that is as indelible as it is absurd.  That Lunacy is a self-proclaimed horror film makes little difference in the director’s approach; the choices and tactics he employs are no more horrific than those in any given Švankmajer film, and indeed, he shows considerable restraint here, leaving many things to the imagination that might, with a different director behind the camera, be exploited for their full shock potential.  Providing shock has never been of interest to Švankmajer; rather, he prefers to unsettle us, to disturb the comfort of our psyches by inundating it with the illogical and the impossible, simulating the peculiar flow of a dreamlike consciousness where the contradictory makes perfect sense and the ordinary seems unnatural and menacing.  He creates a hallucinatory landscape in which the demons of our imagination appear before our eyes in all their unexpected familiarity, and because he is so good at doing so, the things he doesn’t show us are all the more potent.

Lunacy, like all of Švankmajer’s films, is ultimately beyond the realm of standard criticism; it exists as a thing unto itself, and to this whimsically macabre visionary’s loyal legion of acolytes, it is one more perfect creation in a body of work that, thankfully, continues to grow.  That said, however, watching his effort at a bona fide horror film (though truthfully, in my view, all of his work could be classed as such) is something of a disappointment.  Given the genre into which he has ventured, one might expect a hitherto unseen level of grotesquery, if not in outright terror and gore, at least in the ferociousness of his approach; but although the film contains several highly effective set pieces (the aforementioned black mass- with its mixture of the arcane, the blasphemous, and the erotic- pushes a lot of buttons for those uncomfortable with such improprieties, and the entire premature burial sequence is a mini-masterpiece of evoking chills with atmospheric story-telling) and it maintains a palpable sense of dread and impending doom throughout, it seems strangely subdued- particularly given its influences from Poe and de Sade, neither of whom could be called masters of restraint. It’s true that the film is meant to be comedic as well, albeit in the darkest sense; but again, this can be said of most of Śvankmajer’s work.  Furthermore, his narrative- despite the anachronisms, non-sequiturs, and other occasionally jarring surrealist ornamentation- is uncharacteristically straightforward, linear, and grounded in a relatively concrete reality (with the exception of the ongoing interpolation of animated meat, that is).  Taken on the whole, Lunacy is less engaging than his Faust, and less disturbing than his Lewis Carroll adaptation, Alice, both of which push the limits of our preconceived boundaries with more enthusiasm and, consequently, linger in our memories far more pervasively.

Comparisons with his other work aside, Švankmajer’s horror film is still an impressively imaginative piece of work, capturing in its unorthodox framework both the delirious psychic instability that makes Poe’s stories feel like a fever dream and the perverse thrill that lies at the heart of de Sade’s nihilistic hedonism.  It’s not terrifying- though parts of it may cause faint hearts to beat faster- and its eventual conclusion is predictable for anyone who even a passing familiarity with the conceits of horror fiction; nevertheless, it succeeds better, both on an intellectual and a deeply primal level, than most of the formulaic, shock-oriented thrillers churned out by the mainstream film industry in its pursuit of teenage dollars.  Of course, its bizarre stylization may prevent many casual audiences from finding it appealing; Švankmajer’s movies are not for every taste, certainly, though in truth, Lunacy may be more accessible than much of his more directly avant-garde work.  As for those with more eclectic tastes, those who are already indoctrinated into the peculiar joys of this Czech master may find, as I did, that Lunacy fails to generate the same deliciously mind-twisting effects as some of his other projects- though doubtless there will be those, with whom it strikes a particular chord, who will quickly adopt it as a new favorite; those adventurous cinema enthusiasts who have yet to see a Švankmajer film, however, are likely to find it a pleasant introduction to a strange and darkly wondrous world unlike anything they have seen before.  It’s as good an introduction as any, and if it leaves you wanting more, you can take comfort in the fact that a five-decade body of work exists, awaiting your discovery.

Batman Begins (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: Batman Begins, the 2005 action fantasy feature with which director Christopher Nolan initiated his vision of the classic comic-book hero, embodied by actor Christian Bale, re-envisioning the character and his world in a darker, more realistic vein that influenced a number of other subsequent franchise re-boots and brought a new level of depth and sophistication to the genre.  Focusing on Batman’s origins, Nolan traces the story of billionaire Bruce Wayne from childhood, when he witnesses the senseless murder of his parents by a mugger, through his recruitment and training by a mysterious organization called the League of Shadows, to his eventual return to Gotham City and his efforts to fight its rampant crime and corruption using both the skills he has learned and the high-tech gadgetry made available to him by the limitless financial resources he has inherited.  As he faces a host of opponents, he must also confront the enemies inside himself, learning to conquer his own guilt, anger, and fear in order to emerge as the symbolic hero he is driven to become.

It’s a familiar premise, by now, and one which has fueled a variety of interpretations since it was first invented by DC Comics artist Bob Kane in 1939; originally presented with a serious tone,  by the 1960s cultural “sophistication” had become such that the character had deteriorated to the level of a campy and outright comedic TV series- a classic in its own way, to be sure, but a far cry from the darker complexity suggested by the original comic books themselves and loyally embraced by generations of their fans.  Though the character was later reclaimed from this goofy image by such now-renowned graphic novelists as Frank Miller and Alan Moore, his incarnations on the big screen maintained a decidedly cartoon-like sensibility.  When Nolan was approached to resuscitate the franchise on film, he decided to take an approach more in step with the traditions of the comic books themselves.  With co-writer David S. Goyer, he fashioned an adult-oriented screenplay, centering more on the exploration of the character himself than on his far-fetched exploits- and making those exploits seem less far-fetched by infusing them with a hearty dose of realism.  The standard conceits of the story are built from the ground up, explained with a fresh perspective that makes them seem plausible; everything from the hero’s dual identity and theatrical tactics to the “Bat-cave” and “Bat-mobile” (which are never referred to as such) are presented as logical and necessary extensions of his self-creation, formed from the building blocks of his unique personal situation and the psychological forces which drive him, instead of being taken as rote.  It’s an imaginative approach that breathes life into the given clichés of the material, making the well-known mythology of the character feel fresh and contemporary.  In addition, by paying more than just perfunctory attention to the dominant themes of the Batman mythos- the importance of a father figure, the thin line between hero and villain, the relationship between fear and power, the purifying role of ethical behavior in a corrupt and chaotic world- Nolan and Goyer manage to give their film at least as much weight as most mainstream films aimed at a mature audience- and more than many.

All of which is not to say that Nolan’s vision of Batman is in any way light on action.  On the contrary, he fills his film with exciting set pieces made all the more satisfying by the care he has taken in laying a solid foundation; the various technological tools are more impressive for having been de-mystified, and the personal drama woven into the action raises the stakes and solidifies our investment in the outcome.  Furthermore, the action is structured into the story in such a way that the narrative is never put on hold; instead of digressing into extended displays of flashy spectacle, the plot advances through these sequences, making certain that there isn’t an extraneous or gratuitous moment in the film’s 140 minutes.

Much of the success of Batman Begins obviously hinges on its cast.  Nolan, drawing inspiration from classic seventies-era blockbusters like Superman, peppers his movie with an all-star list of gifted players, designed not just to lend credibility to the project but to provide the depth and complexity necessary for his conception.  It is not just the central figure that is subject to the director’s humanizing treatment; the entire array of familiar characters is infused with the kind of detail that raises them from the level of stock cardboard cutouts to three-dimensional beings with a life of their own.  Clearly, the writing plays a major part in this process, but the performances are a crucial factor, and the actors rise to the challenge admirably.  Heading the list is beloved veteran Michael Caine, whose portrayal of trusted manservant Alfred Pennyworth transforms the character from a mere source of comic relief to a powerful force to be reckoned with; thanks to Caine’s justly renowned skills, this aged gentleman’s gentleman is also a man’s man, wise and compassionate, brave and capable, serving both as a much-needed surrogate father and an indispensable ally to the troubled billionaire playboy in his charge- but grounded firmly in a reality that prevents him from ever seeming too good to be true.  As the future Police Commissioner, Jim Gordon, Gary Oldman matches Caine’s understated style in the creation of a sympathetic, powerful character, far from the pompously oblivious buffoon so often seen in previous versions; representing the traditional values of honesty, humility and family, he is an Everyman who becomes an unlikely hero, a worthy and equal partner in Batman’s fight against the forces of evil.  Liam Neeson is dangerously cool as Ducard, the mysterious figure who first becomes Bruce Wayne’s mentor and then his adversary in the fight for justice; Morgan Freeman provides his usual air of approachable dignity and intelligence as Lucius Fox, the techno-genius behind Batman’s bag of tricks; and Cillian Murphy brings an eerie, off-kilter edge to the proceedings as a corrupt psychiatrist with a dual identity of his own.  Rounding things out are Tom Wilkinson, memorable as an arrogant mob boss who finds himself a pawn in a game more powerful than his own, and Katie Holmes, earnest and likable as Wayne’s childhood friend and potential love interest.

It is Christian Bale, however, that must make or break the film with his interpretation of its iconic central character; and make it he does, going well beyond the usual troubled hero persona associated with the role and giving us a layered, remarkably specific and deeply personalized incarnation.  He fully inhabits Bruce Wayne, giving us a clear window into the young billionaire’s psyche and charting his psychological journey as he grows from an angry, vengeful youth to a passionate champion of justice; we believe in his commitment to the ideal because he allows us to see where it comes from, and because he invests so much of himself in Wayne’s emotional landscape he makes it possible for us  to identify with him- a rarity in screen portrayals of this character, which usually make him an aloof, distant figure, hard to fathom and harder to relate to.   In addition, Bale plays Batman as a clear extension of Wayne, a heightened version of his real self rather than a differentiated personality; indeed, in this version, it is the persona of the shallow playboy that seems artificial, a sham perpetrated half-heartedly by a young man for whom worldly extravagances hold no appeal and whose true nature chafes at being confined in so trivial a role- all of which, of course, serves to make us like him even more.  The only unsatisfying element of Bale’s work here is his lack of chemistry with Holmes; their relationship exhibits little of the spark that might give it meaning beyond its obligatory presence in the plot, so that when the would-be emotional payoff finally comes it feels like an afterthought.  Nevertheless, it’s a minor quibble in an otherwise wholly engaging performance.

This impressive line-up of A-listers inhabits a superbly realized vision of Gotham City, created by Nolan in collaboration with production designer Nathan Crowley, which draws heavily on visual influences from Ridley Scott’s classic, Blade Runner, incorporating the use of informed imagination in its depiction of the cityscape; featuring layered architectural styles that reflect the changing tastes of its long history and the mix of elegance and squalor that marks any major real-life metropolis, it’s a place that goes a long way towards establishing the realistic base from which Nolan draws his story.  Contrasting this claustrophobic urban atmosphere are the stately expanse of Wayne Manor and the breathtaking Himalayan landscape of the early scenes, all beautifully photographed by cinematographer Wally Phister, giving Batman Begins a distinctive look and feel that lingers in the mind’s eye.  It’s worth mentioning that Nolan chose to create the environment of his film largely through old-fashioned filmmaking techniques, using extensive footage of actual locations, soundstage mockups, and miniatures, and relying only minimally on computer graphic effects (mostly for animation of the elevated train sequences and construction of scenery using a composite of different locations layered together).  The action sequences were likewise completed with live action stunt work instead of computer-generated trickery, making the slick perfection of the film’s effects somehow even more dazzling.

The force that brings everything together, of course, is Nolan’s powerful and decisive direction.  He landed this project fresh on the heels of his surprise indie hit, Memento, and instead of choosing to helm yet another predictably generic franchise-based blockbuster, he decided to make the film his own, bringing into the mix such now-familiar trademark elements as his inventive, intricate plotting, his exploration of thought-provoking psychological and metaphysical themes, and his noir-influenced use of dark, morally ambiguous characters and situations- all of which fit the Batman milieu like a glove.  Aided by a moody, atmospheric score (jointly composed by Hans Zimmer and Thomas Newton Howard, who resist using the theme-driven formats typically found in films of this genre), he keeps the story driving forward with his heavy use of fast-paced editing and his intercutting of parallel threads, seamlessly interweaving themes and character development as he goes.  Keeping the momentum is key to Nolan’s purpose here: the film, after all, is called Batman Begins for a reason; though it has a completeness and a distinctive energy of its own, it is in fact a prologue, the first chapter of a saga that is meant to continue through a full cycle of films.  The director shrewdly provides sufficient thrills and closure to allow his film to stand on its own, but one can’t help feeling that he is holding back the use of his full arsenal to leave us wanting more.  As Batman Begins rolls to its conclusion, the final scenes feel more like a pause than a full stop, and the sequel-minded hints dropped within the final minutes only serve to feed an anticipation that Nolan has already been building from the very first frames.

As to that sequel, it will hardly be a spoiler for me to say that it was to become the single most successful movie of all time (at least until it was recently deposed by another comic-book film, The Avengers) and that its financial triumph was equally matched by its critical reception; but I’ll touch more on that subject later this week, in anticipation of the imminent release of the final installment of Nolan’s Batman trilogy.  My purpose here is to revisit the first of these remarkable, genre-defying films, which, though it falls somewhat short in comparison with at least one of its future companion pieces, gives more than a sufficient hint of the audacious brilliance that is to come.  Batman Begins is polished and powerful, a movie that treats its source material with the respect and maturity it deserves and, at long last, frees the “comic-book movie” from the assumed stigma of being second-rate schlock, opening it to the possibility of being considered as worthy and important as any “serious” genre.  It’s the first movie in which a so-called superhero (though technically, of course, this particular hero possesses no super powers) is presented in a manner realistic enough to be believable, and even if its fantasy elements are strong enough to ultimately keep it from breaking completely free of its genre, it sets the stage for its creators to accomplish that landmark feat with their next effort.  All these considerations aside, however, it’s more than enough to say that Batman Begins is a pulse-quickening piece of entertainment, fully deserving of its own considerable success and worthy to stand alongside the best this increasingly popular genre has to offer.

The God Who Wasn’t There (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: The God Who Wasn’t There, a 2005 documentary by Brian Flemming, which examines fundamentalist Christian beliefs in contrast against the historical facts around the origin of the religion and explores the impact of such beliefs in a modern social and political environment. Controversial by its very nature, the film makes no pretense of objectivity, presenting its case with a heavy tone of bemused irony and using duplicitous confrontational tactics to elicit responses from interviewees, and ultimately representing the filmmaker’s personal attempt to repudiate, once and for all, his own past as a fundamentalist Christian and take a stand against the supposed moral authority that dominated his former life. More in the nature of propaganda than documentary, it’s a film that nevertheless succeeds in making its point with verifiable and persuasive facts, and, perhaps more importantly, does so in a highly entertaining manner.

The man behind the camera (and occasionally in front of it) is no stranger to controversy over his work; his previous film, Nothing So Strange, sparked outrage over its depiction of a fictitious assassination of Bill Gates, presented in “mockumentary” style. This time around, he fueled the fires already swirling about his film with various marketing and publicity ploys, including an internet contest offering free DVDs of the movie for the first 1001 people to submit a video in which they blaspheme themselves by denying the existence of the Holy Spirit. Needless to say, the filmmaker exhibits a fondness for deliberate incitement that finds its way into The God Who Wasn’t There.

Flemming structures his film into two distinct parts. In the first half, he looks at the difference between the commonly held ideas surrounding the early days of the Christian faith and the factual information in the historical record, making the case that the commonly accepted story of Jesus is a myth, deliberately created by the founders of the church and understood as such by both them and their early followers; he goes so far as to suggest that Jesus never existed as a real person, and that literal interpretation of his life story as presented in the Bible and the surrounding traditions is in direct opposition not only to historical evidence, but even to the writings of early Christians such as the apostle Paul. In the second part of the film, he explores the effect of fundamentalist beliefs in modern society, including the idea of “The Rapture,” and culminates with a visit to the principal of the private Christian elementary school he attended as a child, examining the doctrine that the one unforgiveable sin is to disbelieve the existence of the Holy Spirit- and drawing his conclusion that the greatest blasphemy of all, in the eyes of the Christian church, is to think.

Despite its title, Flemming’s film does not directly address the existence or non-existence of God, per se; his purpose is a temporal one, namely to expose the fallacies and contradictions at the core of modern Christianity and illustrate how a belief in these outdated and misinterpreted ideas affects life in a contemporary world- not just life for the believers, but for everyone else in a society largely influenced by their prejudices and moral agendas. To say that his premise is contentious is an understatement; but it’s certainly nothing new. The ideas he presents in his analysis of the supposed life of Jesus and its basis in literal historical fact are familiar to anyone who has ever examined the faith from the perspective of comparative mythology, and there are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of books devoted to the subject- indeed, the authors of some of these books are among the experts Flemming interviews in his movie. As for the portrayal of fundamentalist Christians and their relationship to the larger culture, the basic conflict between religious dogma and reasonable political policy has been a subject of debate ever since the dawn of the Age of Reason- a fact clearly reflected by the long-standing democratic doctrine mandating the separation of church and state. The God Who Wasn’t There is not a groundbreaking source of new information or world-changing ideas; rather, it is a presentation of well-documented, oft-repeated facts, heavily flavored with flippant cynicism born of the necessity for addressing the issue yet again in a modern, supposedly enlightened world.

It is, in fact, this snarky tone that makes Flemming’s movie enjoyable. In illustrating his points, he finds amusing and pointed ways to emphasize the enormous gap between contemporary reason and the antiquated notions of fundamentalist religious beliefs. From his opening narration detailing the centuries-long dispute between science and faith regarding the revolution of the earth around the sun (or vice-versa, as the church would have kept it), to his heavy utilization of excerpts from The Passion Play (an early, stodgy French silent about the life of Jesus) and The Living Bible (a creaky “educational” film from the 1950s), he makes it clear that- in his estimation, anyway- the fiercely held tenets of Christianity are seriously out-of-step with the intellectual standards demanded by life in the present day; and through his use of interviews with hardcore believers in the faith, he underscores his observation that the majority of modern fundamentalists are not only misinformed and ignorant of the true history of their religion, they are in fact defiantly uninterested in learning anything about it. Their alliance to faith is so deeply ingrained, they exhibit skepticism and mistrust towards empirical knowledge rather than entertain any ideas which might lead them to question their beliefs. It would be easy to accuse Flemming of painting Christians as uneducated and delusional, were it not that some of the experts he brings to the discussion profess their own belief in a more enlightened interpretation of the faith- though it’s also worth noting that, in one sequence, the filmmaker points out that the idea of “moderate” Christianity, taken from the standpoint of strict adherence to Biblical teachings, is in fact not Christianity at all.

The God Who Wasn’t There features a number of sequences that are both entertaining and alarming, but one in particular stands out. Roughly midway through the film’s short running time, serving as a sort of segue from the mythological analysis into the more direct examination of the modern church, Flemming looks at the connection between Christianity and the earlier, blood-sacrificing religions that marked the culture in which it sprang up. There are obvious correlations in these ancient mythologies to the Christian idea of a man being brutally, ritualistically murdered in order to redeem the sins of everyone else; but Flemming points out how this obsession with bloodshed seems to persist within Christian consciousness even today, centuries beyond these primitive, paganistic origins. To illustrate this, he looks at the popularity of Mel Gibson’s 2004 film, The Passion of the Christ, by far the most financially successful movie ever made about Jesus; using clips from the film, edited together for maximum effect, he focuses attention on the excessive amount of highly explicit blood and gore used by Gibson, creating a scene-by-scene gore analysis showing that only a small percentage of the running time is actually blood-free, and pointing out that such an overwhelming use of graphic violence is the result of a calculated, deliberate effort on the part of the director- and one which, clearly, paid off, tapping sufficiently into something deep within the Christian community that made them come to see his movie in droves. Gibson, it’s worth mentioning, tried unsuccessfully to bring legal action against Flemming. Apparently, the free publicity for his movie was not enough to make him comfortable with the implication that his pious epic was motivated by exploitative greed.

It probably goes without saying that Flemming’s movie is designed to provoke controversy and stimulate discussion about its subject matter. It is also no surprise that the issues it deals with are so emotionally volatile; the challenge of maintaining religious faith in the face of ever-increasing scientific knowledge has never been easy, and it grows more difficult every day in our world of stem-cell research and Higgs-Boson particles. The fact is, however, that The God Who Wasn’t There, like the numerous other contemporary films which challenge dogmatic religious beliefs, is not likely to be seen by many of the viewers at which it is optimistically aimed; and even if it were, those for whom fundamental belief is a cornerstone of daily life are not prone to being swayed by any amount of factual information, an observation made abundantly clear by Flemming in the film itself. As a result, his movie can be characterized as the proverbial “preaching to the choir,” in the sense that most of his audience will already be sympathetic, if not pre-acquainted, with the concepts he presents. Nevertheless, it’s a fun presentation to sit through, if you’re comfortable with using intellect in the realm of spirituality- his use of graphics in illustrating his research is eye-catchingly flashy and clever, and his musical accompaniment (executed by himself, under the pseudonym “DJ Madson”) is appropriately hip and contemporary, at least by 2005 standards. It’s also possible that there is an audience, situated in the middle-ground of this question, who may benefit from Flemming’s work here; those who are on the brink, indoctrinated by years in a church-centric environment who nevertheless have questions and doubts- in short, people who are like he once was, himself. For them, watching The God Who Wasn’t There might be an eye-opening, life-altering experience, one which has the potential to make a difference in the way they see the world and, by extension, the way they affect it. After all, the social and political issues examined here have grown even more pertinent over the seven years since the movie was made; the conflict between fundamentalist thinking and social progressivism has never been more pronounced- or more imperative- in recent memory.  I, for one, hope there are those who are drawn to Flemming’s movie by curiosity and find that it helps them choose, finally, to come over the fence on which they have been sitting for so long.

C.R.A.Z.Y. (2005)

Today’s cinema adventure: C.R.A.Z.Y., a 2005 French-Canadian feature by director Jean-Marc Valée about the experiences of  a young man wrestling with his sexual identity as he grows up in a large, conservative, male-dominated Montreal family through the sixties and seventies.  The screenplay, based on the real experiences of François Boublay (who co-wrote with Valée), took 10 years to complete, but the end result was one of Canada’s most successful films of all time, becoming a box office hit and sweeping the Genie awards (the Canadian equivalent of the Oscars, for those who don’t know) with 11 wins out of 13 nominations.

Beginning with his birth on Christmas Day, 1960, the film follows the memories of Zac Beaulieu, whose family consists of three older brothers and (eventually) one younger; their father, Gervais, is a loving but authoritarian working class man with traditional ideas of masculinity, and their mother, Laurianne, a doting but submissive woman with deeply-held Catholic beliefs.  Over the course of twenty years, Zac endures the burden of being “different” in the midst of this painfully average, sometimes dysfunctional clan.  First he is branded as a “special” child with a gift for healing; then, as he grows older, he must face the ever-growing challenge of coming to terms with his homosexuality, an unthinkable and insurmountable obstacle to harmony with his family- and in particular, to his relationship with his beloved father.

With Zac’s journey to maturity and self-acceptance at its core, C.R.A.Z.Y. takes its audience on an inside tour of middle-class family life in suburbia; not only do we experience the painful struggle of a young gay man trying to first deny, then repress his sexuality in an un-accepting home environment, but also the other all-too-common scenario of drug addiction, as Zac’s older brother battles an escalating habit that is discouraged but enabled by parents without the knowledge or skills to make a difference.  Lest it seem, however, that the film presents only a bleak and dour perspective, rest assured that the conflicts and tragedies are woven delicately into a total picture that includes a great deal of quirky humor, as well as portraying the many small joys and transcendent moments that bind a family together- and the private experiences, indelibly printed in memory, that give meaning to an individual life.  In the end, though we see Zac and his family embroiled in much turmoil throughout- and mostly with each other- Valée’s film is about love, and its power to redeem and unite, no matter what seemingly irreconcilable differences may exist or how many mistakes have been made between us.

One of the key elements that contributes to the film’s effectiveness (and it is very effective) is the way it captures the third-quarter-20th-Century setting, giving it a particular significance for viewers who, like its lead character, grew up in this era.  Part of the way it does this, of course, is through its superb scenic and costume design; there is an authenticity to the choices that has to do with capturing the everyday look of the era, rather than attempting to give us a flashy, definitive period style.  It is however, the use of music that conjures the period most noticeably, all the more so because it plays a key role in the plot.  Music provides a common bond between father and son, and is an important outlet for both characters.  Highly specific choices are featured prominently throughout: for instance, father Gervais has a fondness for singing along with “Emmenez-moi,” by Charles Aznavour, mirrored later by Zac’s impassioned bedroom performance of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity;” and in one of Zac’s flights of imaginative fantasy, he has a vision of his epiphanic levitation in the church to the strains of the Rolling Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil.”  The heavy use of the above artists, along with Pink Floyd, Patsy Cline and others, led to the somewhat staggering fact that more than half the film’s budget went to the acquisition of rights for these songs, and director Valée took a cut in his own salary in order to ensure their inclusion.

The excellence of C.R.A.Z.Y. is the result of top-notch work from everyone involved, and it’s an example of a film that is so dependent on the seamless combination of its elements that it seems unfair to single out individuals for specific praise.  Nevertheless, a few standout cast contributions deserve mention.  Most obvious, of course, is the performance of Marc-André Grondin as Zac; whether he is willfully disregarding his father’s behavioral strictures, furtively eyeing his cousin’s teen-dream boyfriend, determinedly trudging through a blizzard as penance for his sinful thoughts, or finding an outlet for his stifled passions through his love of music, he lets us inside and allows us to feel like participants in his story.  The performers who leave the deepest impression, however, are Michel Côté and Danielle Proulx, completely authentic as his father and mother; they inhabit this pair without judgment or caricature, showing us their many flaws but also the good intentions and endearing qualities that make them lovable.  Côté in particular gives an unforgettable portrait of a man who is at once larger than life and touchingly human; volatile, masculine, and charismatic, he commands the screen and makes it very clear why this relationship is so important to Zac.

C.R.A.Z.Y. is not a film that invites in-depth analysis of its underlying themes and archetypal symbols, though these things are present; rather, it is a heartfelt, sometimes painful slice-of-life movie filled with bittersweet nostalgia, ironic hindsight, disarming levity, achingly familiar moments of commonality, flashes of revelatory observation, and a cumulative emotional resonance that subtly builds to an unexpectedly powerful climax.  It accomplishes a rare feat for this type of movie, allowing us to be drawn so completely into this family that we truly feel a part of it.  This is partly due to the way Valée and Boublay show us the kind of mundane everyday details that become shared touchstones through repetition and associated memories, and their effort to invest each member of the family with as much individual life as possible, even the brothers whose smaller roles in the proceedings leave them more or less in the background; the final effect is that these characters seem like real people in our lives, people that we know intimately, and this serves to deepen our connection to them and give their experiences the weight of shared universal memory.  Perhaps most importantly, the movie possesses a sincerity which derives largely from the genuine love it has for all of its characters- even as it reveals their maddening imperfections and their often inadequate skills at coping and communication.  This quality alone makes it superb, far-and-away superior to so many similar cinematic memory-plays that start promisingly and then devolve into just another manipulative tear-jerker before the final scenes; but what makes it a truly remarkable film is the primary perspective it takes in its exploration of the trials and tribulations of family life.  With Zac as our window into the Beaulieu clan, our sympathies are naturally transferred to him, and we are therefore led to identify with his personal conflict, which is, of course, the central focus of the film.  His gradual progression- an anguished process of fear, denial, self-loathing, and self-deception, built around his emerging homosexuality-  is thereby made relevant to audiences without firsthand understanding of his experience, a sadly familiar one to millions of gay and lesbian people the world over. It’s a heartbreakingly complete and specific portrayal: Zac’s fear of humiliation and rejection from his family, his desperate bargaining through prayer to have his “curse” removed, his rejection of faith and rebellion against normalcy even as he continues to hide his true nature; all these and more are important facets of the movie’s dominant subject matter, and though it’s all so common as to border on cliché, it’s a social phenomenon that has been long obscured by stigma.  By investing us in Zac from the beginning of his life, the movie opens it up to be shared- and experienced, at least through extension- by all.  I may be wrong, but I can, unfortunately, think of no American film that even comes close to making the reality of growing up gay so painfully accessible to a wider audience; I invite your corrective examples, because if there are such films, I very much want to see them.