Gareth Higgins
Gareth Higgins

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.

Posts By This Author

Boomtown Stories

by Gareth Higgins 10-07-2014
The purpose of art is to help us live better.

HIGHBROW FILM criticism and fanboy comment pages alike often manifest as if their purpose is to make snarky points about who knows how much about what. Whether in an academic journal or on Reddit, film criticism can either get the point or be the point. We can either convince ourselves that we exist to show the world how smart we (think we) are—or to facilitate a conversation about the purpose of art that’s spacious enough to stimulate both the heart and the mind.

The lack of clarity about such purpose means that it has to be continually reasserted, so here goes: The purpose of art is to help us live better. I contend that this is the primary evaluative lens through which we should watch. Of course aesthetics, craft, and content matter, but how I watch films depends at least as much on the notion that art emerges from a human creative impulse that is at its best directed at the common good.

The protagonist of the new documentary The Overnighters has made a similar shift in consciousness regarding his own vocation. North Dakota pastor Jay Reinke understands that the purpose of church isn’t far different from that of art, and he opens his building to economically disenfranchised folk trying to find a job in the oil boom, letting them stay overnight despite local suspicions. It’s a manifestation of Christian vocation mingled with lightly ringing alarm bells—the pastor appears to be a Lone Ranger, not collaborating with supportive church leaders or members; the jobs are in an environmentally degrading industry—and a picture of community service that seems at once miraculous and exhausting.

Possible Grace

by Gareth Higgins 08-05-2014
"Calvary" is a rare and beautiful film, one that tells the truth, or at least asks for it honestly.

Brendan Gleeson in Calvary

WHAT’S A GOOD priest for? So asks Calvary, the second feature film from writer-director John Michael McDonagh, rooting itself in Ireland’s coastal landscape, centering on a pastor threatened with scapegoat-retributive murder from a grievously sinned-against parishioner. Its vibe owes a great deal to the quiet reflection of films such as Jesus of Montreal and Au Hasard Balthazar (in which a donkey evokes the love and wounds of Christ), and the archetypal Westerns High Noon and Unforgiven. Brendan Gleeson plays a priest who was drawn into the church after his wife’s death, which allows us the rare experience of seeing a cinematic Catholic priest who is both a parent to his flock and to a beloved daughter, who feels somewhat abandoned by his commitment to the church.

Gleeson has the uncanny ability to hold his massive frame as both solid—almost concrete—and vulnerable. Knowing that everyone is both broken and breaker, his Father James is healing on behalf of a flawed institution, although he doesn’t confuse vocation with a job. His bishop’s response to a request for help is “I’m not saying anything,” reminding me of Daniel Berrigan’s challenge to religious hierarchies, heard at a public meeting in Dublin in the run-up to the Iraq war: “In Vietnam, they had nothing to say, and said nothing; now, they have nothing to say, and they’re saying it.”

Father James understands the difference between stewarding power and grabbing it (one obvious signal of his goodness), and he is up to his neck in the community, running the gamut from friendship with an American writer looking for inspiration in the land of his presumed ancestors to a visit with a former pupil whose own inner darkness has led him to do monstrous things.

Small Screen, Great Drama

by Gareth Higgins 07-08-2014
Studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.

IT’S A TRUISM to say that television is outpacing cinema for entertainment quality and depth of exploration. Since The Wire appeared a decade ago, studios have been realizing that there is an audience for long-form storytelling that is willing to think.

Recently I’ve been struck by the set-in-the-’80s espionage thriller The Americans, the deeply haunting police procedural True Detective, the hilarious pathos of Louie and Veep, and the sly, shocking Hannibal, a prequel to The Silence of the Lambs: All hugely entertaining, dramatically credible, and challenging both as works that require sustained attention and in terms of what they say about life. The Americans is really an exploration of marriage and cultural identity wrapped up in Cold War cloaks-and-daggers; True Detective is a lament for the broken parts of America, and an affirmation that friendship endures above almost everything else; and Hannibal is a postmodern delving into Dante’s Inferno, looking at the underbelly of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s assertion that “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

What’s most exciting is that it’s now considered viable to make drama that actually asks real questions about life and is prepared not to answer them pat. Along with the vast amount of social media conversation about these works, what we have is more akin to ancient forms of public entertainment that required a kind of audience participation—theatrical catharsis meeting gathered conversation to produce a community hermeneutic. When we talk about TV and cinema, we’re talking about ourselves.

Viewing Community

by Gareth Higgins 06-03-2014
At film festivals, because we're all living together for a few days, people let their guard down.

(d100 / Shutterstock)

THERE ARE apparently 2,000 film festivals around the world, so the format of red carpet arrivals, gala screenings, and Q&A sessions that appear all but scripted in advance have become well and truly entrenched. The best festivals recognize that their purpose is to cast a spell over filmgoers and filmmakers alike, inviting them into a spacious place where the heart of the dream that led to the film being made and the audience’s reason for watching it can beat in a community of people who thirst for art that gives life. Unsurprisingly, the biggest festivals find it hardest to pull this off—asking for contemplative mutuality at Cannes or Sundance is like looking for a Buddhist tea garden at Disney World.

Yet film festivals can be places where small is indeed beautiful. It’s only the movies that need to be big—or at least their capacity to alchemize with the viewer’s autobiographical narrative. The trappings of VIP lounges, paparazzi, and celebrity gossip are just that: They trap the aesthetic air, creating distance between people and art. Smaller festivals may be more capable of nurturing something that really feels like community.

So when at North Carolina’s Full Frame Documentary Film Festival this spring we watched Visitors, Godfrey Reggio’s follow-up to his epochal Qatsi trilogy, and the diverse faces of human beings segued into natural landscape and a Louisiana cemetery, the sense of empathic connection with an artist who spent the first 14 years of his life in New Orleans and the next 14 as a Christian Brothers monk was palpable. The impossible-to-categorize musician Nick Cave portrayed a sly version of himself in the pseudo-documentary 20,000 Days on Earth, intercutting concert footage with a role-played therapy session, visits with friends, and a neo-noir road trip, to moving effect. And the gay rights courtroom drama of The Case Against 8 played to an audience of citizens whose state had adopted a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage; the showing led to near-euphoric anticipation of how a better history can reverse this tide.

Security State Superheroes

by Gareth Higgins 05-09-2014
To build a new world, sometimes you have to tear the old one down.

(Yuriy Vlasenko / Shutterstock)

THE CLASSIC COMIC book hero is given a post-WikiLeaks spin in the film Captain America: The Winter Soldier. He realizes that he is being asked to participate in the extrajudicial killing of people whom a magic formula has decided might threaten the established order in the future. It’s intriguing that even Nick Fury, one of Captain America’s “bosses” at the superhero super-agency S.H.I.E.L.D. (lines of authority are never particularly clear when super powers are in play), almost goes along with this.

To build a new world, sometimes you have to tear the old one down, says character Alexander Pierce, played by Robert Redford in a role that both echoes and inverts the ones he often took in the ’70s—where, in films such as All the President’s Men and Three Days of the Condor, he fought the system from within for good. This time Redford’s having fun as a bad guy, while Captain America (aka Steve Rogers) is the golden boy flirting with the audience and inviting us into his subversive politics (indeed the first words he speaks—the first words of the movie—are “on your left”).

So The Winter Soldier is striving for far more than your typical comic book movie and has been clearly influenced by the Dark Knighttrilogy in aiming for philosophical depth. There are interesting ideas here—S.H.I.E.L.D. being part of the problem and the character Winter Soldier’s name evoking the 1972 documentary Winter Soldier about Vietnam vets expressing regret. There are fun bits of business with Steve Rogers’ difficulties in adjusting to the contemporary world (such as the dawning reality that Star Wars andStar Trek are different things). And there’s real character development, especially in Rogers’ interactions with the Black Widow.

If I Were a Rich Man

by Gareth Higgins 04-03-2014
James Patterson has pioneered something beautiful in the world of books and will be remembered for it.

(Claudia Paulussen / Shutterstock)

BEST-SELLING WRITER James Patterson recently established a million-dollar fund to support independent bookstores amid the current publishing industry crisis. Patterson is showing both generosity of spirit and humility before the audience that made him rich, not to mention an ethical commitment to the community-building impact and personal pleasures of smaller bookshops.

I think his open-minded and visionary idea should be translated to independent theaters too. The experience of entering shopping mall multiplexes to be seated in a shoebox and watch 25 minutes of advertisements before the same film that’s screening at every other multiplex does not resonate with the poetics of the art. And I mean that literally—beautiful cinema does not belong in an ugly industrial container. I mean “belong” literally too—if art is about belonging, about the idea of finding a home for our idea of ourselves, then it would make more sense to screen movies in environments that invite a sense of home, not evoke battery farms.

If James Patterson were to set up another million-dollar fund devoted to independent movie theaters, I’d be happy to help him spend it. I’d upgrade projection, audio, and lighting so that as much attention can be paid to how a film looks as to how paintings are hung in a gallery or music played in a concert. I’d make the seats comfortable for average-sized human beings. I’d give grants to community groups who want to refurbish their dilapidated downtown theater as a venue for the common good. I’d screen films that invite social change. I’d develop new distribution networks that challenge the dominance of the military-industrial-entertainment complex—offering the rights to screen films in exchange for an ethical fee or a gift in-kind. I’d have potlucks at 5:30 p.m. and movies at 6:30 p.m. so there’s enough time afterward to write poetry together or march on the capitol.

Cine-Monastic Disciplines

by Gareth Higgins 03-06-2014
Without conscious resistance, the flattened culture of entertainment globalization is going to continue to dominate.

(Fer Gregory / Shutterstock)

ONE OF THE paradoxes of writing about film is the application of one form of language to interpret another. The medium we’re discussing here is visual, and despite the relevance of the word “poetic” to the great works of cinema, to interact with the movies means, as writer-director John Sayles says, to “think in pictures.” In an age with multiple ways to consume films, and the pressure to respond with the immediacy of social media, to think deeply about movies is a countercultural act.

I noticed this again after being given a record player a few weeks ago. I’ve listened to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks more than pretty much any other album over the past 20 years and now on the vinyl recording I can actually hear instruments I’d never noticed before. I can’t deny the superiority of the medium, at least in terms of what we might call “musical richness.” But digital transmission makes the sound crisper and more available.

There’s a parallel paradox with cinema, in that the experience of watching films has both diminished and expanded over most of our lifetimes. There are more portals than ever (you can watch Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story or Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo on your phone, for goodness’ sake). Yet the opportunity to see films in optimal settings (decent projection, focused audience, without 25 minutes of commercials for soda mingling with threats of prosecution directed at the people who have paid to see the film by the industrial complex that depends on them) doesn’t come often for most of us. Without conscious resistance, the flattened culture of entertainment globalization is going to continue to dominate.

Not Afraid of the Dark

by Gareth Higgins 02-04-2014
The Coens realize that sometimes, of course, comedy is bleak. But the point of gargoyles is to remind us that sacred and profane coexist.

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, the new Coen brothers film, is the mournful tale of a folk musician too dedicated to his art to make money or to accept love when it’s offered him. It has gorgeous music, performances that are like watching characters step off the pages of a Joseph Mitchell New Yorker story, and language that is exquisite, but not so much that we don’t believe it. A common response to Inside Llewyn Davis is that it’s a pessimistic film, with characters so self-centered and worn down by money and the lack thereof that they cumulatively produce a world of no hope.

Many assert that the Coen brothers have pitched their tent as the anchor tenants of cinematic melancholia—Fargo’s bleak focus is a family utterly destroyed by financial pressures and the inability to know where or how to ask for help; Barton Fink’s eponymous protagonist finds his dream writing contract ends up a descent into hell; and The Man Who Wasn’t There is finally executed because he doesn’t see the point in defending himself. Llewyn Davis is an impetuous man in a fickle industry, too out of touch with his own humanity to want to see his own child, and he is beaten up for heckling a fellow musician. And so people come out of this film depressed. To which my minority response is simple: Look closer. Inside Llewyn Davis is full of life and second chances and, yes, hope for artists. Davis has friends who care, and there are people who get what he does. Who cares if the world isn’t listening? That was never a measure of great art anyway.

States of Being

by Gareth Higgins 01-05-2014
The 10 best U.S. films of 2013

I’VE RECENTLY spent time researching the vision of the U.S. through the lens of one film for every state, following the intuition that, as most movies are set in Southern California or New York (and there’s a lot more America where those didn’t come from), we need to examine Fight Club and On the Waterfront, Brokeback Mountain and Nashville no less than The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind to begin to capture the American dream life. It seems obvious, but it’s often dismissed: Contrasts between the states are mighty and rich. A Wyoming plain and a Sonoma vineyard, Hoboken and Harlem and Hot Springs, the Florida Keys and the Swannanoa Valley are all magnificent intersections of dreams and mistakes, which in honest art allows them to be places where the past can be faced.

And on that note, here’s my list of the 10 best U.S. films released in 2013:

The new Criterion Blu-ray John Cassavetes box set includes The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, the best entry to his work: A grimy thriller about one man trying to make art against the odds.

Jeff Bridges and Rosie Perez show us something more of how to be human in Fearless (newly available on Blu-ray), about a man who needs to die before he can live (and love).

Missed Reckonings

by Gareth Higgins 12-12-2013
Fifty years ago, a kind of innocence was taken, and a kind of brokenness remains unrepaired.

THE MOST common image of the assassination of President Kennedy is embedded in the collective consciousness due to the fact that it was the subject of what may be the most-seen film in history, Abraham Zapruder’s 26-second home movie, grainy and garish in color and fact. The more recent eruption of reality television may have left us nearly unshockable, but a long, hard look at Zapruder’s short, hard film is still horrifying. The most provocative context in which I’ve seen the film located is Stephen Sondheim’s meaty musical Assassins. The Broadway production had Neil Patrick Harris as Lee Harvey Oswald with the film projected onto his white T-shirt. That the show took place at Studio 54 served to underline the demonic bargain at the intersection of the military-industrial-circus complex: The nightclub theater location satirized the fact that our stories about killing can either critique the cultural appetite for destruction or serve to perpetuate more of it as a form of entertainment.

If Assassins was the most provocative screen for the Zapruder film, the most politically complex is Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie JFK, now being rereleased to mark the assassination anniversary. It’s one of the greatest examples of cinematic craft applied to polemic (current examples are Captain Phillips and 12 Years a Slave)—edited like a dance, with a television miniseries’ worth of big name actors (Jack Lemmon, Sissy Spacek, Walter Matthau, Donald Sutherland, John Candy) in small roles holding up the edifice of big speechifying done by Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones. It’s a thrilling film, and it has intellectual substance—the point is not whether or not the conspiracy theory posited in JFK is true, but that human beings “sin by silence” when we should speak.

Making Once Enough

by Gareth Higgins 11-05-2013
"About Time" is funny, beguiling, and even profound.

I RECENTLY saw a photograph of me taken on the day I was born: two weeks premature, swaddled, peaceful, vulnerable, beautiful—pure potential. I wanted to travel back in time to give the little guy some advice and protect him. Most of all I wanted him to experience the things I missed—those that only seem to come to our attention with the benefit of hindsight. I wanted him to take more risks for the good, not worry so much, be more open to receiving love, take more walks in fields and on beaches, and avoid a thousand mistakes. I wanted him to be different.

While wanting to undo history is probably a human universal, it can also be a kind of psychic violence, emerging from the notion that there is such a thing as the person we were “supposed” to be. Indulging this notion led to me projecting it onto three intriguing films. Short Term 12 is a lovely, painful story of recovery from childhood wounds. In Seconds, the newly restored melancholic science fiction tale of human engineering from 1966, Rock Hudson brilliantly imagines what happens when you convince yourself that superficiality is depth and exchange the life you have for cosmetic “transformation.”

Complexities of Struggle and Love

by Gareth Higgins 10-02-2013
The makers of "The Butler" have told a kind of truth about the struggle for "beloved community."

LEE DANIELS’ The Butler, a century-spanning tale of race in the United States and service in the White House, is a dream of a film—by turns historically realistic and magically fable-like. It’s a perfect companion piece to last year’s Django Unchained, in that case a movie whose tastelessness wrapped up as fabulous entertainment forced audiences to engage with a deeper level of the shadow of U.S. history.

Based on the story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served multiple presidents in a White House that took its own time to desegregate its economic policies for domestic staff, The Butler begins with a rape and a murder of plantation workers by the son of the boss. The ethical quality of the film is immediately apparent. This horror is not played for sentiment, nor even spectacle, but to evoke the very ordinariness of monstrosity.

This makes The Butler a rare film: one more interested in confronting us with a kind of previously unspoken truth than in goading us to feel the catharsis of guilt-salving by association. (It’s the antithesis of films such as Mississippi Burning, which use white protagonists to tell black stories and appear to believe that we can somehow participate in the virtue of the civil rights movement just by watching a movie about it.) The makers of The Butler have told a kind of truth about the struggle for “beloved community” that has rarely been seen so clearly on multiplex screens. The film illustrates the serious and painful work of nonviolence and invites us to consider the political and cultural tensions within the black freedom struggle, while giving a more humane perspective on the presidency than is often the case. We can hope the door is now open to more reflective cinema about the unfinished business of the black civil rights movement, broken relationships, traumatic memory, and how we tell the story of who we are.

Meditating on Memory

by Gareth Higgins 08-02-2013
When we experience movies like memories, we meditate rather than consume, and do what Pascal suggested was the antidote to all the problems in the world: sitting still for 10 minutes and thinking.

CINEMA IS poetry, not prose, and so looking for “realism” in movies is an ambiguous task. Perhaps the better comparison would be with memory, for the way we experience the past might feel a little bit like a film unspooling in a low-lit room, the images urging themselves onto a wall with frayed paper, red-hued, with the sound fading as I get older. Like the opening of the film of Carl Sagan’s novel Contact in reverse, in which all the radio signals that have ever been broadcast speak their way into deep space, the further away I get from a memory, the more like an old movie it seems.

The role that cinema plays in memorializing the past is unparalleled—for both the way we experience memory and the memories themselves are uniquely bound up in each other—Casablanca or There’s Something About Mary alike may remind us of past loves, and perhaps also of the time and place we saw those movies, and watching either of them again enables us to re-experience the very emotions we may have first experienced by watching it. When we experience movies like memories, we meditate rather than consume, and do what Pascal suggested was the antidote to all the problems in the world: sitting still for 10 minutes and thinking. At the cinema we take a walk in our minds and, through an art form that is usually less controllable than reading or listening, we are taken somewhere new.

Beauty as Antidote

by Gareth Higgins 07-01-2013
If beauty heals the world, and the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better, who's up for demanding a better cinema experience?

THE EXPERIMENTAL psychologist Steven Pinker writes that what we think we have seen will shape what we expect to occur. It doesn’t make the news when people die peacefully in their sleep, or make love, or go for a walk in the countryside, but these things happen far more often—are much more the substance of life—than the acts of terror that preoccupy the media. It was horrifying when a British soldier was killed on an English street in May. But given the ensuing ethnic tension and communal judgment, it might have been useful, not merely accurate, to report that on the same day, almost 3 million British Muslims didn’t kill anyone. Because violence is a pre-emptive act (I kill you because you might kill me), when we keep telling the story that the threat of massive violence is ever-present, we will behave more violently.

According to Richard Rohr, the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better. So perhaps attention to beauty is the best alternative to our cultural obsession with blood. For me, cinema can do this better than any other art form, and is uniquely capable of transporting the imagination. Recently I’ve traveled to the minds of retired Israeli security service leaders agonizing over their achievements and failures in The Gatekeepers, gone to Louisiana for a trip around the soul of a man trying to redeem himself in Mud, empathized with the tragic story of a man making bad choices to get into a better state in The Place Beyond the Pines, wondered at the creative process and bathed in the French countryside in Renoir, been reminded of and elevated into an imagining of love and its challenges in To the Wonder, and been provoked in Room 237 to consider whether or not Stanley Kubrick intended The Shining to be a lament for the genocide that built America.

Transcending a Genocidal God

by Gareth Higgins 06-05-2013
The History Channel's "The Bible," like so much of so-callled "religious pop culture" is at best putting the desire to convey a particular message ahead of making the best artwork for the medium.

From the History Channel's "The Bible"

HOW IS IT that a miniseries based on the Good Book could evoke sectarian and violent notions of the Divine that would have seemed backward to some even back in the era of melodramatic biblical epic cinema? The History channel’s The Bible, like so much of so-called “religious pop culture,” seemed to be the product of good people trying to do a good thing, but at best putting the desire to convey a particular message ahead of making the best artwork for the medium.

The politics of The Bible seemed to perpetuate an “us vs. them” lens. It left me wishing for a treatment of scripture presented from the perspective of the marginalized, instead of a portrayal of “victory” as being the deaths of people considered different. Couldn’t someone make an Exodus movie about Moses’ neighbors—you know, the ones who saw God’s favor rest on the boy next door, while their son was killed by a psychopathic king? Or one focused on the myriad people groups considered “unclean” and worthy of genocide at the hands of those who claim to speak for God? Or a rendering of John’s Revelation that understands it as a poem about remarkable beginnings, the battles of the human heart, and a love willing to remake the world to set us free from the traps we’ve laid for ourselves? You don’t even have to be that controversial—can’t someone just make a decent movie about Ruth or any of the many cool women in the gospels?

Paved with Good Intentions

by Gareth Higgins 05-11-2013
The beginning of wisdom proposed in the best documentaries is simply this: telling the truth, to ourselves and others, as best as we can.

From "God Loves Uganda"

I’VE WINCED often at the portrayal of religion in recent documentaries—partly out of embarrassed identification with some of the apparently crazy things I’ve witnessed in real life, and partly because some documentarians seem to think that there’s nothing to religion other than those crazy things. God Loves Uganda, a new documentary about the role played by U.S. missionaries in nurturing that country’s homophobic culture and legislation, manages to avoid the mistake of confusing bad religion with all religion.

The concern for the Ugandan people manifested by fundamentalist charismatic Christians is suggested to be far less than the sum of its parts as they become participants in the nurturing of a social structure that aims to eradicate gay people. But the film avoids easy stereotyping of Christian mission work, particularly in the person of Bishop Christopher Senyonjo, a smiling radical in the mold of Desmond Tutu. His is a face of Ugandan Christianity that is open, generous, alive, courageous, and kind—a prophetic African voice for human rights.

Wendell Berry recently suggested that the expression of anti-LGBTQ sentiment may evoke a kind of subconscious reaction in the proponent akin to autoerotic pleasure. Delighting in the pain of others is a kind of sadism rooted in the insecurities harbored by the person who has decided it’s their job to be the moral police, despite how kind they may think they are being. The fear stirred by psuedo-Dominionist movements may have given the U.S. missionaries in God Loves Uganda a sincere desire to change the world. But their lack of self-reflection leads them to export some of the worst of American cultural imperialism: prejudice, the conflation of sentimentality and cultural ignorance with love, the denial of the gift that the other has for us.

A True Contender

by Gareth Higgins 04-04-2013
"On the Waterfront"

PAYING ATTENTION isn't easy in a world of infinite content, but there's a reason artists and prophets from Jeremiah to Arthur Miller have called upon us to sit up and listen: A drop of water or a focused breath may be as inexhaustible as a symphony or a thousand-mile trek. And one film? It could contain the world. On the Waterfront is not that film (for me it's Andrei Tarkovsky's transcendent portrait of a 15th century icon painter, Andrei Rublev), but it belongs in the canon all right. The new Criterion BluRay edition not only offers the crispest representation of the 1954 New Jersey dockyard visuals any of us have ever seen, it also illustrates the sociopolitical and creative context in a manner richer than any previously released.

So the story of a former prize fighter torn between his brother's mob ties, a blossoming love affair, his broken ambition, and desire to do the right thing emerges once again, six decades after first exploding onto the national consciousness, winning eight Oscars along the way. It's six decades and a bit more since its director, Elia Kazan, testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee, another man making a tough decision amid nearly impossible pressure: name names and survive or take the Fifth and receive exile. It's one decade after a perhaps more self-conscious Academy gave Kazan a lifetime achievement Oscar, though half of the audience chose to sit on their hands. We may ask whether or not the grace of God would have enabled any of us to do differently than Kazan, or if he perhaps had good reason to challenge the worst Soviet practices in the 1940s, or if the value of an artwork depends on the integrity of the artist. More questions besides are explored in the array of features on this On the Waterfront disc—interviews with Kazan, a documentary about the film's making, and a transcript of Kazan's defense of his testimony.

Time to Start Talking

by Gareth Higgins 03-14-2013
There is an overwhelming need for publicly compelling conversation about violence, guns, and the role of entertainment media.

A scene from the video game Call of Duty.

THE CEO OF one of the world's most popular video-game manufacturers recently denied any relationship between his products (some of which have their users re-enact mass slaughter) and real killing. The substance of such denial appeared to some to be no more complex than "because I said so, and some other people agree with me." Meanwhile, in the immediate aftermath of the Aurora movie theater shootings last year, Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein called for a summit of directors to discuss their imaginary guns. He later acknowledged that "I don't have the answers to these questions. ... They're so complicated; you need people with better facts and intelligence. In this situation I have to be a follower, not a leader." Refreshing humility from someone better known for bluster and self-assurance, now opening a door to a conversation on which lives may depend.

Film critics, too, have a responsibility to contribute to this conversation, so let me propose some ideas:

1. Portrayal and advocacy are not the same thing. The violence of Reservoir Dogs and Looper may be visceral, but it tells the truth about the suffering that guns and knives can inflict and may help people think twice about enacting real violence. The violence ofHome Alone andTransformers may be cartoonish, but it lies to the audience and may fuel appetites for further destruction.

2. The shape of the narrative arc may be more influential than any particular acts of violence. Our culture seems to be addicted to the idea that order can be brought out of chaos by ultimate force, that violence can literally "cleanse the world." This myth—this religion—shows up everywhere, not just in the movies. Indeed, it is a keystone of our politics. The best thing movies can do about it is to tell a different story.

Oscars and the Big Picture

by Gareth Higgins 02-11-2013
This year the films nominated for Best Picture are a fascinating snapshot of what ails—and could heal—us.

WE SHOULDN'T really expect the Oscars to grasp the point of history, though this year the films nominated for Best Picture are a fascinating snapshot of what ails—and could heal—us.

Zero Dark Thirty takes a clinical view of the search for Bin Laden and has been criticized for its portrayal of torture as effective. To my mind this debate may miss the wider question: Torture is bad enough, but a central assumption about the efficacy and validity of killing for peace—that shooting an old man in his bedroom would solve anything—is worthy of enhanced interrogation.

The point is missed also in the brouhaha about Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino's thrilling satirical Western. People are up in arms about the comic book violence and use of the N-word—but this is perhaps the most powerful, even indelible, portrayal of the violence of slavery ever made for a mainstream audience. Two wrongs don't make a right, and the revenge arc in this film should be questioned, but Tarantino has done a moral service in not sanitizing his fictionalization of historical memory. Lincoln is the perfect companion piece—I highly recommend you see both. Django Unchained uses B-movie tropes to vastly entertain while confronting the real horrors Abraham Lincoln was fighting to end. Lincoln is a theatrical history lesson that delicately handles the moral authority competitions, language games, and political complexity behind the 13th Amendment.

Top 10 of 2012

by Gareth Higgins 01-08-2013
Here's my list of the best films released in 2012.

THE BEST experiences I had at the cinema last year were nostalgic—re-releases of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp and Lawrence of Arabia were uncanny reflections on the cost of war to soldiers and some roots of contemporary Middle East strife. Here's my list of the best films released in 2012:

10. A tie:The Pirates! Band of Misfits, a gloriously rich, smart comedy for all ages, full of life and self-deprecating humor, and Life of Pi, which envelopes its audience with visual wonders and spiritual questions.

9. Wes Anderson's delightful treatment of childhood first love amid dysfunctional adults, and a film not afraid of the shadow side of growing up, Moonrise Kingdom.

8. The Cabin in the Woods, a gruesome horror comedy that not only enacts and portrays, but understands the lie of redemptive violence.