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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Who Is My Enemy?
I HAVE A SIMPLE view of what makes a movie great: Technical craft and aesthetic vision operating at their highest frequencies come together in service of a story or images that help us live better. How does the movie interact with what Mennonite peace theorist and practitioner John Paul Lederach calls the choice to participate in escalating dehumanization or escalating humanization? In other words, does the movie help us become less human or more? In a narrative film, do the characters’ doubts and loves, the pain they suffer, and the results of their actions leave us with a deeper sense of our own humanity?
No aspect of popular culture more urgently deserves our attention than how “enemies” are presented. What motivates “bad guys,” and how are they dealt with by “good guys”? What side is the audience on? It has been noted by some that every audience watching Star Wars wants to believe that it’s the Rebel Alliance, fighting a titanic battle against an Evil Empire. Some viewers may imagine the Empire is North Korea. Others may imagine it is the U.S. Then, of course, there is the Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s clarity: that the line between good and evil runs through every person, not between us.
To See and Be Seen
2017 WAS A YEAR of vulnerability at the movies, beginning with the Best Picture Oscar going to Moonlight, a film about the potential to heal broken masculinity through male tenderness, and ending with real life stories of how some men abuse power and all men need to take responsibility for changing masculine cultures of domination. Here are some of the films that meant the most to me this year and help to illuminate that onscreen journey.
First there was Endless Poetry, the 88-year-old Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky’s biographical wonder, about a mother’s love, a father’s distance, an artist’s emergence, and the wisdom of looking back and letting go.
Then, Patti Cake$, where the future of America is bright, embodied by a white working-class woman who makes hip-hop out of her struggles, an Indian immigrant so selfless that Patti Cake$’s success is what makes him happy, and an African-American street prophet raging against the machine, each falling into a community where flaws are loved.
Mother! was the most controversial film of the year: Before truth sets us free, it sometimes hurts. A lament for mistreating the Earth, which by dramatizing the burden of being the target of misogyny seeks to honor all women.
Third Way Movie-Going
“Where did we get this capacity to imagine that horribly complicated messes have been ironed out just because someone has looked us in the eye and told us so? I don’t know about you, but I keep getting it from the movies.” So says novelist Jim Shepard in his provocative new collection of essays on movies and making the American myth, smartly (and depressingly) titled The Tunnel at the End of the Light.
In Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Shepard sees sociopathy at the root of the desire for celebrity. He also reflects on how Saving Private Ryan was a “war movie found pleasing by conservatives and liberals, and it’s not hard to figure out why: ... more than enough war is hell to satisfy the left, and ... an even greater helping of well, it may be hell, but it sure brings out the best in us, doesn’t it? raw meat for the right.” Shepard makes a useful point— something can be remembered by one group of people as the antithesis of how another sees it.
Being Present to the Present
A FEW YEARS AGO, Woody Allen made a subtle cinematic joke about writers and artists harking back to “the good old days,” while soaking up—and co-creating—the atmosphere of 1920s Paris. If ever there was a “good old days,” some might think it was 1920s Paris. The joke of Midnight in Paris was that even people who live in the good old days are nostalgic for their own version. People feel the same way about movies: “They don’t make them like they used to” is the common refrain.
A Caper Film with More
LOGAN LUCKY, the new film from Steven Soderbergh, is a delicious surprise. It’s about working-class Southerners robbing the Charlotte Motor Speedway during a NASCAR race, and its weaving of the intricacies of planning, executing, and living in the post-heist glow is hilarious and even warm.
More than that, it’s a heist film in which ordinary people (not slick, hypermasculine Armani warriors) employ imagination instead of heavy artillery to take money from an institution that doesn’t need it anyway. The fact that the target of the theft got the money through selling overpriced, undernourishing food and drink is only one piece of bonus philosophical content. It’s a rare thing: a thoroughly entertaining movie with real things to say about the moment it is released. At a time when left-right political division in the U.S. has intensified, Soderbergh, a Southerner who works from New York, has made a red-blue reconciliation comedy.
GOOD VIBRATIONS is a brilliant roof-raising musical from 2012 about making a difference in the world by being yourself. It’s the kind of film that makes you fall in love with life. And it was the last movie about which Ken Hanke and I wholeheartedly agreed.
Hanke, our local newspaper film critic in Asheville, N.C., recently passed away at the too-young age of 61. His byline identified him as “Cranky Hanke,” but he had a generous heart. He knew that good film criticism requires knowing three things, at least: something about cinema, something about how to write well, and something about life. The first of these comes naturally to people who watch enough good movies. The second is part gift to be channeled, part skill to be nurtured. As for the third, well, we all know something about life—the trick is whether or not we’re willing to let what we know of ourselves be known in our work.
Ken Hanke was a critic who believed his own opinions, but didn’t impose them on others. He understood film criticism as a conversation between movie and audience, in which being right isn’t as important as being authentic.
This kind of critical engagement is often ignored in favor of mere criticizing—reacting, not responding, snap judgments instead of considered reflection. “That’s one of the worst things I’ve ever seen” limits the possibility of conversation to discover more of what the movie might be inviting us to. I want to know why you think it’s the worst (or best). I want to be invited into a conversation about authenticity and what it is to live better in the light of what artists and other provocateurs are trying to tell us.
When Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev met in what has been seen as the beginning of the end of the Cold War, the venue was an unassuming house overlooking the sea in Reykjavík, Iceland. Höfði House had been previously occupied by the poet Einar Benediktsson, who once wrote, “Take notice of the past if you would achieve originality.” Whatever else Einar meant, at this house, the necessity of learning from history can’t be ignored.
It is easier to imagine today’s enemies talking once you’ve seen the house. You see, it’s not the Avengers’ home base or one of those underground lairs favored by James Bond villains. It’s just a house, surrounded by the typical trappings of a small city—business headquarters, cafes, supermarkets. The Icelandic government uses it today for social gatherings. And what happened in it 30 years ago was at heart two people communicating, with a shared goal that transcended them both.
The notion of enemies sitting down and talking with each other is also at the heart of the magnificent new Icelandic film Rams, which I saw in a cinema about five minutes’ walk from Höfði. Two sheep-farming brothers live and work beside each other, but haven’t spoken for four decades. A family shadow has driven them apart—one of those decisions made by parents seeking the best for their children but not knowing how to arrive there. And so, separately, the brothers endure twice the hardships and experience only half the blessings of life amid this most exquisite landscape. Success is ignored by the other, or serves as an occasion for jealousy rather than celebration; Christmas is spent alone, no one to share the feast, and Icelandic winters are hardest of all.
Welcome to the Jungle
THE MOVIES AND MEANING community recently published our list of greatest films, based on the idea that in a great film the highest aims of craft and the most humane visions meet. It seeks a “third way” between one reactionary notion, that art should be judged on the basis of what it portrays rather than how it portrays it, and another—that content is morally neutral. I say bring it all: love and pain and action and laughter and grief and sex and violence and horror and contemplation. To extend Roger Ebert’s notion, a movie is not only about what it’s about, but it’s also about how it’s about it.
The most beloved films on our list include The Tree of Life (in which the most enormous, transcendent existential questions mingle with the most ordinary of tragedies and blessings), Lone Star (which aims for nothing less than the healing of U.S. memory, for survivors and perpetrators alike), and Wings of Desire, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Spirited Away (which use magic and the supernatural to remind us of the miracle of everyday life). The top 10 also includes Schindler’s List—a testament to monstrous suffering and extraordinary courage alike—and the Three Colors trilogy, which does the seemingly impossible: take a national political virtue and fully embody it in the life of an individual.
The new version of The Jungle Book is too recent for the list and hasn’t had the chance to prove its staying power, but what a glorious surprise it turned out to be. The beloved 1967 cartoon is held in great affection, but affection that requires turning a blind eye to its colonialist and racist undertones—particularly the literal aping of some black cultural tropes by a character presented as nonhuman, whose greatest desire is to “be like you.” The 2016 version works to transcend white supremacy and even critiques human interference with the rest of nature. When a villain comes to a violent end, it’s not through the hero’s superior strength but through the bad guy’s own selfishness.
The Crosshairs of a Dilemma
STANLEY KUBRICK’S Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb was released in 1964, and it was echoed later that year by a film on a similar topic, Fail-Safe. Directed by Sidney Lumet, Fail-Safe imagined the idea of a nuclear explosion being unpreventable by the people supposed to be in charge of it. Strangelove is hilarious but chilling satire; Fail-Safe is just chilling. The central notion, that ethics can’t be trusted to machines, lingers today: George Clooney produced a live television version of Fail-Safe as recently as 2000.
A current version of the dilemma is brilliantly portrayed in Eye in the Sky. Cutting between four main locations (a British government committee room, a military control center in the English countryside, a Nevada drone piloting bunker, and the Kenyan house from where a suicide bomb attack may be launched), it’s like a relentless tennis match in which the crisscrossing ball is a matter of life and death.
Who decides who can be killed? If blowing up the house will prevent an attack that might kill 80 people, how much does it matter that a little girl selling bread nearby will probably die too? What is legal? Does “legal” mean “right”? Such questions have rarely been handled with such compelling dexterity in a movie. Eye in the Sky deserves comparison with Dr. Strangelove and Fail-Safe because it doesn’t offer easy answers, only difficult questions, and its seamless movement between locations fully immerses the audience inside the debate. But it transcends those earlier films because of the way it treats the characters that might be seen as “other.”
Mocking Pretentious Power
EXTRAORDINARY British actor Mark Rylance has a noble theatrical reputation but has only recently found prominence in movies, most notably in the wonderful Steven Spielberg Cold War film Bridge of Spies, for which he recently won the best supporting actor Oscar. Speaking of Spielberg, Rylance made a beautiful point: “Unlike some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days, he leads with such love that he’s surrounded by masters in every craft.” This gentle wisdom—that good leaders attract good teams—echoes the message of Bridge of Spies, which illuminates the possibility of talking to each other across boundaries of militancy, misunderstanding, and fear. It is an invitation to loving leadership, criticizing a mutually destructive strategy by practicing something better.
Amid the noise of “some of the leaders we’re being presented with these days,” I’ve been indulging in a little comfort-watching, asking Charlie Chaplin to help me discern a way through. Chaplin’s brave, hilarious, and deeply moving film The Great Dictator does to authoritarianism what C.S. Lewis says the devil cannot tolerate: It mocks evil, revealing its pretensions. Chaplin’s courage has rarely been matched. Today his mantle may be held by Sacha Baron Cohen, whose trilogy of pride-puncturing, diversity-affirming films, Borat, Brüno, and especially The Dictator, is brave enough to challenge prejudice when it’s not safe to do so. These three are in the same tradition as Dr. Strangelove, In the Loop, Four Lions, Dave, and the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, which make us laugh at the absurdity of political control, taking away some of its power.
If comic portrayals of bad leadership are comforting, serious cinematic explorations of bad leadership might help us learn how to avoid it. Nixon, Downfall, the Godfather trilogy, Citizen Kane, The Apostle, Beasts of No Nation, The Act of Killing, Leviathan, and There Will Be Blood all present warnings of what happens when leaders are self-interested, unaccountable to an emotionally mature community, and not mentored in tending to their inner lives.