Gareth Higgins (garethhiggins.net) is a writer and broadcaster from Belfast, Northern Ireland, who has worked as an academic and activist. He is the author of Cinematic States: America in 50 Movies and How Movies Helped Save My Soul: Finding Spiritual Fingerprints in Culturally Significant Films. He blogs at www.godisnotelsewhere.wordpress.com and co-presents “The Film Talk” podcast with Jett Loe at www.thefilmtalk.com. He is also a Sojourners contributing editor. Originally from Northern Ireland, he lives in Asheville, North Carolina.
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Moving Beyond Mainstream
WHEN A FILM seems ahead of its time, it’s because its artists are like time travelers, bringing information from the future to illuminate our present. Ideas that lack mainstream consensus (for instance, restorative justice, gift economies, and the flourishing of previously silenced voices in central leadership roles) can manifest in filmmakers’ storytelling as though they are already reality. We leave the theater wishing the world was more like what we were shown. In the future, we may watch the same film and remember how strange it was when the world was different.
Two recent movies that are this kind of prophetic couldn’t be more different from each other in tone but have the same intent: to say something truthful about women who suffer.
There's a Cost to Wandering
IN THE FILM BLAZE, directed by actor Ethan Hawke, happiness is rare and meaning always seems slightly out of reach, just around the corner. An unconventional, compelling biopic of Blaze Foley, a country musician who died too young, and violently, Blaze is a challenging alternative to familiar rags-to-riches tales. It’s rags-to-slightly-more-fashionable-rags, where the loneliness of the road is never salved by the acclaim of a crowd, the price of art being the very life of the artist.
As a movie about the pain of making music, it’s up there with Tender Mercies, Coal Miner’s Daughter, and Dreamgirls. As a biopic it gets closer to the inner life of its subject than most—Ben Dickey’s hypnotic lead performance embodies the drive to write, to sing, to perform, even if no one’s watching. “He knew the value of zero,” says iconic songwriter Townes van Zandt in the film. Van Zandt is played by Charlie Sexton, one of van Zandt’s cultural heirs and a frequent member of Bob Dylan’s band. The value of zero here is the notion that what we’re most called to in life is authenticity, whatever the reward.
Sacrificed by Society
A TRAUMATIZED Iraq War veteran and Oscar Wilde don’t immediately invite comparison, but in two current films they could be scapegoated brothers. The Happy Prince, a labor of love for its writer-director-star Rupert Everett, and Leave No Trace, director and co-writer Debra Granik’s first fiction feature since Winter’s Bone, are both about men in a wilderness, not because they have done anything wrong but because the dominant culture doesn’t want to see them. And I mean truly see them—especially the way they may remind us of discomfort with ourselves.
In Leave No Trace, Ben Foster’s Will has given mind and body for his country and wants to live where he feels safest—in the woods. He handles himself and keeps his daughter (the brilliant Thomasin McKenzie) physically safe, emotionally healthy, and growing in knowledge of the world, but because he doesn’t care for the “system” that harmed him, he must hide or jump through hoops to prove he’s as good as anyone else.
Everett’s Oscar Wilde, in The Happy Prince, is trying to make a life after being imprisoned for love. The first prison was the love itself, love made torment by bigotry; the second a literal jail. He’s broke and broken. He doesn’t always treat others well, but aches to grant the world what he can: amusement at ourselves mingled with compassion for those living “in the gutter,” whether or not they can see the stars. These beautiful films offer hope without cliché, recognizing that our experience of tragedy always coexists with love.
A Dialogue Within
THERE’S A bluish light on the beach in The Piano, Jane Campion’s 1993 film about a woman mute by trauma-induced choice, sold from Scotland into an unwanted marriage in New Zealand, who deepens the roots of her soul and expands her reach into the air and the people around her. The same light is in the misty forest where her confused patron and eventual lover lives; but in her husband’s home, it is dark.
I remembered The Piano as an unusual Victorian romance, but watching it recently, in a restored version that accentuates the exquisite strangeness of its images and ideas, opened a forgotten room in my mind. The Piano functions as a love story that could happen “here”—a character liberates herself from oppression, claims her space in the world, and learns to love herself. But it also deals with mythic reality. Love, hate, power, healing, purpose, Being itself. Things I had not noticed the first time.
It’s often this way when we watch films from the past—we remember who we were, which of course is only ever who we thought ourselves to be; we compare with who we think ourselves to be now. A dialogue ensues between the younger and older selves. A movie that we then experienced as a masterpiece now seems clichéd, or one we did not “get” the first time around now manifests as the film we’ve been waiting for all our lives. We weren’t ready before. Sometimes what we need most is to be reminded that the wonder we used to experience might be even more true than the skepticism that now burdens us.
A Buddy Movie Goes Deep
LIFELONG FRIENDSHIP is paradoxical. The person who knows you best can also cause the most pain. Another layer of complexity emerges when one party wants to change their life while the other remains fixed on how things used to be. Spend an evening with high school buddies who haven’t seen each other for 20 years, and you’ll see that unresolved parts of our character tend to appear when old friendships spark off each other.
The utterly thrilling Blindspotting, a likely candidate for both the best and most important film of the year, dramatizes friendship as central to being human, with the unresolved dimensions of wider social relationships the main challenge we face to be happy in this life and to have a life at all. It’s a brilliant examination of one of the smallest facts of life—boy meets boy—and one of the largest: Since your people persecuted my people, how can we ever become the same people?
The plot is simple: A guy has three days before his probation ends, so he must avoid even the hint of trouble. It doesn’t work out, of course.
The Power of Kindness
THE NEW DOCUMENTARY about the life of beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, is not merely a nostalgia trip. It stirs more than fond memories: a collective hope that we might discover our kinder selves. Fred Rogers made kindness look easy.
Some folks are skeptical—they remember Mister Rogers as nice, but not brilliant, sweet, but not powerful. Directed by Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals Fred Rogers as an activist for the common good—a singular figure who cared enough about people to give them what they needed, even if they didn’t know to want it. Footage from 1969 of Rogers testifying to a U.S. Senate subcommittee poised to reduce public television funding—melting the heart of a previously resistant senator—isn’t just a heartstring-pulling moment of grace but shows how speaking truth to the powers can sometimes convert them.
Memories That Heal
CONJURING THE VIEW on a mountain hike, the beloved Americana musician David Wilcox sings “Some things you can’t unsee.” The first time I heard the song, I was struck by the surprise: It’s not just the painful, traumatic interruptions that stay with us. The exquisite, tender, spectacular ones can become permanently intertwined with our more practical thoughts, a backdrop for memory, musing about the future, or just living in the ordinary moments of day-to-day living. The magnificent bonus is that traumatic memories can be healed by reframing them with images and thoughts that empower us beyond victimhood.
Some movies, too, sear themselves into the mind. The memory of a scene and the feelings it aroused may become interwoven. It can be difficult to tell the difference between the movie we saw and whatever was going on in our lives at the time. Sometimes the scene is distressing, but other times it is like an old friend or mentor we can visit for comfort, advice, or a reminder of something useful we had forgotten.
I experienced this recently with the new restoration of Women in Love, the 1969 adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s novel about four people trying and failing to tell each other how they feel and what they need.
A GRIZZLED LAW enforcement officer, days from retirement, looking for one last challenge. A team of bank robbers, one with noble(ish) motivation, the other psychopathic. Great American vistas to enforce the notion that what we’re watching is Important. So far, so clichéd.
But Hell or High Water, Taylor Sheridan’s script directed by David Mackenzie, brilliantly transcends such hokum in favor of utterly honest dialogue, a plausible plot, and real settings. The drama, as embodied in career-highlight performances from its leads, takes on an almost-Shakespearean gravity. Two brothers steal from a bank that’s been stealing from them. People get hurt, but they were hurting already, so who cares? And the Old Man of the West experiences the lack of resolution that may result from even the most dogged pursuit.
Marcus (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto (Gil Birmingham), Texas Rangers chasing bad guys, have known each other for years. Marcus ignorantly throws racial insults at Alberto, believing them to be affectionate, while Alberto quietly winces. The memory of land theft and genocide is in Alberto’s bones, his half-Mexican, half-Comanche personhood betrayed by the forebears of the very authority he seeks to uphold.
Meanwhile, Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) rob branches of the bank that’s been trying to manipulate their family. Like all families, it’s a family with secrets, but the lack of healthy community bonds has allowed those secrets to wreak havoc on the lives of its members. There’s no support for moving beyond the trauma of a violent upbringing, just resignation to things as they are and belief that maybe a bit of money could get them out of it. A bleak Texas standing in for a bleak America, one in which the aching desire to connect is buried under economic desperation and get-rich-quick schemes. Even the church is in on it—a televangelist merely replicates the system of social inequality and betrayal of trust. People need help, but no one shows them how to ask for it.
Getting Ready To Be Heroes
THREE RECENT FILMS portray heroism as ordinary people behaving with conviction under extraordinary circumstances. In Sully, an airline pilot lands safely in the Hudson River; in Snowden, a man speaks truth to power when he realizes it has been lying to him; and in the three-minute short We’re the Superhumans, British Paralympians and others with disabilities dance, jump, run, and fly to a big-band soundtrack. They are changing the world by challenging dominant cultural images of “able bodies,” “normal,” and “strong.”
Musician and activist David LaMotte has a theory about effective activism: An individual hero single-handedly overturning monstrous injustice isn’t a harmless cliché trotted out in TV or film dramatizations. Projecting near-supernatural power on such people is not only inaccurate, it denies them an even greater power: to truly influence others. If Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King Jr. were merely magicians, how can any of us respond other than applaud their tricks and despair of our capacity to challenge the oppression we discern in our own times? In World-Changing 101 (a book whose title is both serious and ironic), LaMotte suggests that this harmful fantasy ignores the strategic preparation and community support that nurture effective activism. Montgomery bus boycott handbills were printed by a group led by a teacher, Jo Ann Robinson; she had worked for years as a civil rights activist, including preparing for such a boycott. Printing handbills, sharing cars, telling hopeful stories, serving lemonade to tired marchers—all were vital parts of the body of change. Rosa Parks sat down alone, but she got up with many.
The cinematic heroes who don’t look like real-life activists avoid community, tending to act alone (Batman at least has a butler). Instead of painstaking planning (trial and error too), they spring into action or reaction when the bad guy is already halfway to victory (the villain often confidently explaining his dastardly plan just before it is foiled). They’re typically not around for the work of integrating the aftermath.
But Sully sees heroism as doing what you are trained to do—repudiating the notion that an emergency landing is a “miracle” rather than an act of human skill. Snowden tells how a whistleblower enlisted distinguished journalists so his revelations could be ethically told. And in the most glorious image of the year, We’re the Superhumans parallels one man in a flying wheelchair with another cleaning his teeth. Just getting out of bed can be heroic
Reimagining the Rules
WARREN BEATTY is an actor who truly deserves to be called a filmmaker. He produced many of his films, and the five that he also co-wrote and/or directed are classics that reimagine their genres.
Heaven Can Wait exchanges predictable alpha masculinity for subtle expressions of the need for companionship; Dick Tracy is the most exquisitely designed comic book movie ever made, with Stephen Sondheim songs to boot; and Bulworth is a wildly entertaining political satire (a big Hollywood comedy with a Greek chorus played by the political activist poet Amiri Baraka!) that in a parallel universe might have been co-written by Howard Zinn and Michelle Alexander.
Meanwhile, Reds is an out-and-out masterpiece—a romantic epic about the rise of communism in the U.S. with a convincing central love affair and dramatization of what building a social movement is actually like.
His latest, Rules Don’t Apply, appearing after his 15-year screen absence, is original, even magical entertainment. Lily Collins and Alden Ehrenreich perfectly play employees of the reclusive entrepreneur Howard Hughes who fall in love in 1958, despite the “rules” that say they shouldn’t. The actress and chauffeur must choose between the money, position, and power offered by Hughes or their forbidden love. Playing Hughes, Beatty invests him with a kind of vulnerability rare in portrayals of easily caricatured famous people. The psychological complexity that overcame Hughes is handled with sensitivity, and Beatty never lets the performance turn into attention-seeking awards bait or a joke at the expense of a powerful person. Our empathy with some of Hughes’ character doesn’t erase the part that invites critique: His greed, control issues, and manipulations are here too.
But the film is really about the constrictive rules that affect us all and how to discern those that make sense and are life-giving. Rules Don’t Apply is a kind of serenity prayer for people caught between twin American obsessions: God grant me the courage to transcend harmful religious puritanism and individualistic expansionism both.
With it, Beatty has made another genre-transcender: a compelling drama, with delicious light touches, that stirs the heart too. This film believes in the mysteries of love and the necessity of forgiveness. Released after such a divisive election, it’s also a gift from one of the most important U.S. filmmakers: an invitation to reimagine the rules we live by, especially those that keep us apart.
The Best of 2016
THE LONG TAIL of media availability is one of the great cultural gifts of our time: All the films on year-end “best of” lists are easily accessible to anyone with access to a screen. For me, 2016 was a year that emphasized cinematic empathy—crossing lines of difference, yearning to connect, even while national politics were keeping people apart. There were many highlights, including:
The war-on-terror moral inventory of Eye in the Sky, the consumer critique and diversity-affirming Zootopia, the redemption of old age and delightful provocation to inclusive community in A Man Called Ove, and the powerfully honest portrayal of young gay experience in Being 17. In Life, Animated, the link between the stories we tell and how we treat ourselves was presented to happily moving effect; Morris from America brought new comic life to the single parent-child folktale; Midnight Special did the same from a far more somber, yet no less moving perspective; and Captain Fantastic imagined a way to be family that challenges oppressive cultural norms without staying isolated from the world. The Coen brothers created a brilliant satire of politics and religion in Hollywood, Hail, Caesar!; and the wonderful Pete’s Dragon, The Little Prince, and A Monster Calls each illustrated our internal conversations that either minister to or repress pain.
The unexpected box office failure of Warren Beatty’s Rules Don’t Apply shouldn’t detract from it as a touching, humane drama about healing divisions, and the individual spiritual search went deeper in Knight of Cups and Last Days in the Desert.
My top 10 of the year:
10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Maori kid and grumpy Kiwi find their hearts on a bush trek.
9. Hell or High Water. A modern Western that’s serious about power, economics, and race.
8. Arrival. Soulful science fiction inviting us to listen.
7. Loving. The civil rights struggle as the story of just one family.
6. Queen of Katwe. A magical fable that also happens to be true.
5. Manchester by the Sea. Stark tragedy’s aftermath.
4. Lemonade. Beyoncé’s declaration of lament and healing.
3. Rams. Moving and hilarious Icelan-dic call for reconciliation.
2. Embrace of the Serpent. An astonishing journey into Amazonian mysticism, darkness, and light.
Conveying the milieu of high school tensions and romantic longing, a film that aches with trauma yet eventually sketches the possibility of hope.
A Poetic Vision
THERE'S A crazy-beautiful idea in Paterson, Jim Jarmusch’s film about a bus-driving New Jersey poet (or a poetry-writing bus driver), that makes it honestly inspirational, and perhaps even holy. Inspirational because this story of an ordinary guy in an ordinary town shows us how to see our own ordinariness as full of wonder; holy because this ordinary guy is an icon of integrity—he loves, he lets his yes be yes, and judgmentalism finds no foothold in him.
The crazy-beautiful idea is that everyone is an artist, and that when not subjected to the trappings of academia, the publishing industry, or commerce, creativity can just flow as part of everyday life. Adam Driver is perfectly ordinary enough to be a gift in the lead role (Paterson his name, Paterson his town), containing his tall muscular frame with gentleness, but ready to use it to protect (a military past is invoked through the subtle use of an old photograph). The Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani brings a lovely, mild eccentricity to the woman he loves. Their kindness and dreaming together makes a blue-collar house a palace.
Paterson unfolds over a week, and I do mean unfolds—the day-by-day account replays the moments that repeat themselves in most of our lives (waking up, the commute, encounters with others, the walk home, dinner, and a beer at the local pub). Each day’s experience reveals more about the people we’re watching.
Someone has called Paterson a “utopian” film, and although it would be easy to read only the surface and see a pleasant tale of a guy and a girl and the music of words, it earns that term. For one thing, the community in Paterson is one of the most racially diverse in movies—there are distinct African-American, Indian-American, and Middle Eastern voices here. The average white guy is in the minority—and utterly satisfied with his life. Not only is he not striving for the public acclaim usually featured in stories of struggling artists, he is so mindful about the world and his place in it that he may not even notice that his poetry isn’t winning him any awards (never mind income).
He also may not notice, nor does the film remark upon, the most idyllic fact of his life: In a movie set 40 minutes from Manhattan, in an era where louder voices are telling us to fear the other, home is a white U.S. veteran and a brown-skinned Middle Eastern free spirit, figuring life out together. Another crazy-beautiful idea. Or maybe not so crazy.
Do Unto Others
Mira Nair is courageous in asserting that the film industry requires a reboot.
Oppose Without Hatred
ONE OF the characters in the original King Kong (1933) says that “it was beauty killed the beast.” This line is spoken after the magnificent ape is hounded to his death by buzzing planes that knock him off the side of the Empire State Building, so it’s not strictly true. Beauty is actually what he wanted to save; I guess we could say it was the military-industrial-special-effects complex that killed him.
It’s a nice turn of phrase, nonetheless, and it came to mind recently when two of the biggest-scale movies of the year were released a week apart. The enormous monkey homage Kong: Skull Island and Disney’s live-action remake of its own Beauty and the Beast don’t immediately invite comparison, but the stories they’re based on are actually about the same thing: finding vulnerability behind terrifying facades.
The tenderness of the original Kong’s approach to Ann Darrow (Fay Wray) and Belle’s openness to the light that might be hiding behind the Beast ’s frightening demeanor are mirrors. But it’s inaccurate to think that the transformation—or the risk—in these stories travels only in one direction. Ann gets rescued and the Beast turns back into a man. But Kong also experiences love and Belle undergoes a rite of passage that leaves her more whole than before.
Small Stories with Big Meaning
JAPANESE DIRECTOR Hirokazu Koreeda tells delicate, exquisite tales—small stories that invite huge responses. They hold expansive space in which human beings can see what we really are—a little lower than the angels, deciphering what it is to live between the steeple and the gargoyle.
Koreeda’s early film After Life imagines death being followed by a week of decision during which the deceased are invited to choose the memory they wish to live in forever. It takes place mostly in a nondescript office building, in which ghosts and bureaucrats talk over desks and filing cabinets. But magic is at work. After Life is one of the great alchemical films—light and words dance with the viewer’s perception, transforming thoughts we thought were ours alone into a recognition of the universal need for love and our aspirations to live better.
Other Koreeda films—such as Like Father, Like Son; Our Little Sister; and Still Walking—are firmly rooted on earth, but the distance between the characters might be cosmic: a family confronting the discovery that their biological son was accidentally switched with another, three siblings meeting their teenage stepsister after their father’s death, the survivor of a near-drowning unsure what he owes the family of the boy who saved him.
I HAVE LOVED movies as long as I’ve loved anything, but these days I don’t love going to the movies. Multiplexes often feel like overpriced and overstimulating factories, in which we pay to be bombarded by advertising for other products. Industrial movie houses are more like planes going through turbulence than spaces for paying attention to art or even merely the pleasure of being entertained. Not an escape, but an ordeal.
This shadow has, however, provoked alternatives. Life-giving ways to watch movies are popping up—new independent theaters, community screenings, and festivals that interrupt the conveyor-belt method of get ’em in, sell ’em stuff, and get ’em out.
A Shortage of Empathy
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is a strange sequel, both better and worse than the first. Better: It centers characters who in other movies would be marginalized; there’s a large dose of wit and tenderness (sometimes at the same time: such as a wonderful Mary Poppins joke that brings a huge laugh of endearment); a fluid visual imagination; and an actual idea: What happens when Ego rules the universe?
Worse: While in the original, violence was meted out sparingly, in this second Guardians outing, killing solves everything. One of the most brilliantly designed special-effects scenes in the post- Jurassic Park era is also one of the most nihilistic: A lovable rogue liberates a prison by means of a magic arrow that can kill dozens without needing to be re-aimed. He does it whistling a happy tune, accompanied by a wisecracking raccoon and a pop song. It’s cartoonish, of course, but I don’t recall Tom or Jerry ever killing anyone; this scene, in a film that elsewhere exhibits imagination and delight, merely invites us to revel in carnage.
Couldn’t we see the guardians dance their way into something other than annihilating their opponents? Couldn’t the character who can transform suffering by touch have been employed in the service of healing the bad guy’s megalomania? Guardians Vol. 2 gets a lot right, especially in allowing unconventional characters to take the stage. But it also carries on the tradition of family first and last, even if it means destroying everyone else.
David Foster Wallace once wrote, “If ... fiction can allow us ... to identify with a character’s pain, we might then also more easily conceive of others identifying with our own ... We become less alone inside. It might just be that simple.” It might.
There’s no reason why this can’t be true of blockbuster action movies—indeed, I think Marvel is trying to get there. One of the many things to grieve about the recent death of the great filmmaker Jonathan Demme is that he never got to make a Marvel movie. His works always invited empathy: for a young woman investigator targeted by misogyny in The Silence of the Lambs, for the father of the bride at a messy wedding in Rachel Getting Married, for gay characters previously ignored or pathologized in mainstream cinema in Philadelphia. Demme lived as if the purpose of art was to lead us to understand each other, or at least to recognize when we don’t. He knew violence was a part of life and so should be a part of movies. He also had the kind of moral imagination that goes beyond merely playing killing for laughs.
I GREW UP with Raiders of the Lost Ark—wildly entertaining, dancing brilliantly with movie craft, speeding up and slowing down in perfect measure, delicious humor and giant thrills aplenty.
But like us all, the filmmakers were subject to the prejudices, pressures, and knowledge of their time. So Raiders stereotypes the “Arab street,” and its casual approach to violence, while typical of action cinema, is ugly. The joy of the ride makes it easy to ignore that Raiders is about a Westerner using Africans to get a Middle Eastern sacred object into an American museum. It may be taking things more seriously than they deserve to even mention this, when the goal was merely a hugely enjoyable Saturday morning serial throwback. The problem with Raiders may be only visible in retrospect—it’s certainly not a bad film; just a popular one with gaps.
What Horror Can Show
IT'S A QUARTER of a century since most of us discovered Hannibal Lecter, the iconic serial killer of The Silence of the Lambs—which has just been restored and rereleased for home viewing by Criterion. Lecter had already been played by Brian Cox in 1986’s Manhunter, but Anthony Hopkins made him a household name.
But as directed by the thoughtful Jonathan Demme, the movie’s primary purpose was to feature Jodie Foster as FBI agent Clarice Starling, who Foster described as one young woman trying to save the life of another. I remember being thrilled and terrified watching, but I was always uncomfortable with the fact that I ended up liking the bad guy.
Fictional anti-heroes are popular, I suppose, because they allow us to indulge our shadow sides and may even provide a bit of healthy catharsis. Well-made horror movies can be a bit of fun—and they can say something meaningful, too, especially when they invite us to look at the demons within ourselves, not just in the faces of people we don’t like. However, there’s a fine line between letting off psychological steam and reasserting the scapegoat mechanism that leaves the whole world blind.
The Whole Truth
THE BIG STORY about Ridley Scott’s film All the Money in the World has been the replacement of Kevin Spacey with Christopher Plummer after the movie had been completed. A generous helping of digital dexterity made space for a brilliant performance by Plummer as the billionaire J. Paul Getty. That Plummer gave this role his all with only a few days’ notice, and that Scott is such a quick, decisive filmmaker that he could remake an entire character only a month or so from the film’s release, makes this a bit of cinema history.
But lost in the mix is an ethical question about the film’s existence in the first place.