Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Battle in Seattle (2007)

Christian Spotlight on Entertainment has uploaded my review of Battle in Seattle (which I screened at TIFF last year but is now making some theatrical rounds).

Here is a link.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Juno, Atonement

Saw Juno finally, and liked it more than I expected though (of course) not as much as I think I am supposed to and definitely not as much as I might have were it not some sort of hipster, critical-taste litmus test being shoved down my throat.

It was not without its faults. I thought it a bit too much on Juno's side and a bit too "hey look how clever I am" for its own good. But it avoided many of the obvious pitfalls of such a genre, the primary one being making everyone around the protagonist a jerk so the audience has no place else to go.

It was like they were brave in allowing Juno to be unsympathetic at times, but then (it felt like to me) lost their nerve and had throw in some mouthy technician or well-timed private break down so that we got, you know, that the "tough broad" exterior was an act to cover up the fear and trembling. I thought Jennifer Garner was superb...could easily have walked off with the picture if her part had been bigger and made a real human being out of the thinnest of caricatures. I'm not sure I felt Juno ever really owned her part in what brought her to the situation she was in, the scene with the technician being a good example. Yeah, her comment was inappropriate, but Juno was (as she often was throughout the film) trying to turn the whole thing into a joke as her coping mechanism, and I thought the film (and character) did an awful lot of judging for a film (and character) that took offense at anyone daring to judge her.

Atonement was a solid literary adaption with a good pedigree. It's the sort of film that I could easily see winning a Best Picture Oscar from an academy too old and experienced to not know Juno is looking down on them them and too conventional into being fooled by arguments that No Country for Old Men or There Will be Blood is anything but style over nihilistic substance. [Note--I wrote that before the nominations came out; four out of five ain't bad.]

By contrast to those pictures "Atonement" wears its moral earnestness on its sleeve, and if the end is (perhaps) nihilism-very-lite, its got the cast of up-and-comers like Garai, Knightly, and McAvoy to make voters feel like they are out in front while still being relatively safe. There's even a cameo by Vanessa Redgrave to lend a stamp of old school imprimatur to the proceedings.

It's sweeping without being heavy and while it is a tad self-conscious in places for my taste (the long tracking shot take in the middle of the picture feels to me like an "anything Cuaron can do, I can to better" self-indulgence rather than a stylistic serviced to the film). Still, for the most part, Wright gets out of the way and lets the material speak for itself, and if and when I'm in the right frame of mind (I was tonight), I can appreciate a solid, commercial literary adaptation for what it is and enjoy it--maybe even more than a film that keeps insisting to me that it is the greatest thing since orange Tic-Tacs.

It wasn't "Persepolis," but I enjoyed it for what it was.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Emma (59-63) -- "But she struggled, and let it pass."

I don't really have much to say about Chapter 11. It begins with a conscious decision to put aside the matchmaking for the moment and ends with details about Isabella's and John's visit.

I see two interesting passages that give insight into Emma.

In describing how the impending visit does not leave time for Emma to promote the match, the text says:

"It was no longer in Emma's power to superintend his happiness or quicken measures" (59).

This passage is ironic because it implies that it once was in Emma's power to superintend anyone's happiness or quicken his measures. Clearly we are still in a part of Emma's development where she believes she can impose her will on the world. Harriet is a gentleman's child because Emma says she is, she can superintend the happiness of others.

Just as in other passages, however, we also see Emma's capability of self-government. When John Knightley claims that Mr. Weston probably does not feel the absence of Frank as strongly as Isabella would since Weston relies on public pleasures more than family for happiness, Emma "could not like what bordered on a reflection on Mr. Weston and had half a mind to take it up" (63).

I would say it doesn't border on a reflection; it is a reflection. Emma "would keep the peace if possible" (63). This passage would be interesting if it were solely a matter of self-discipline. In addition, though, Emma has a reflection on John: "there was something honourable and valuable in the strong domestic habits, the all-sufficiency of home to himself, whence resulted her brother's disposition to look down on the common rate of social intercourse, and those to whom it was important.--It had a high claim to forbearance" (63).

This passage is one that is likely to provoke different responses on a second as opposed to a first reading, in part because it can reasonably be interpreted in different ways. Is John really as he is described or is Emma merely making excuses for him as well? What exactly is the connection between his "strong domestic habits" and the "high claim to forbearance"? It is something more than a fancy way of saying that Emma held her tongue to keep the peace, since the passage insists that Emma "let it pass" not just to keep the peace but because the source of his looking down on Weston is a habit which has the "honourable and valuable" in it. Or is this a lie Emma tells herself to make swallowing her tongue more palatable (no pun intended). On a subconscious level does she know it would irk her (or that she would not be able) to keep silent in the face of someone less than deserving? Perhaps, though her subsequent conduct towards Mrs. Elton makes this line of argument tentative at best.

It's also worth pointing out that John "suspects" Mr. Weston belongs to the class of people depending on "the power of eating and drinking, and playing whist with neighbors" (63). This portrait doesn't really mesh with the portrait we have of Weston who has been portrayed as giving up a lot of the comforts of society to marry for love. It's also somewhat odd that John suggests a connection between the dependence on society and "an easy, cheerful tempered" disposition. In my own experience, at least, it is those of "strong feelings" who most crave social interaction, and a cheerful, easy disposition is held by many of my friends who I would classify as introverts or who are content to find pleasure in family. So Emma might not be the only one in her family who makes pronouncements out of thin air without much reference to logical reasoning or contrary evidence.

Then again, perhaps John is simply saying this to divert the conversation from an unpleasant (and rather inappropriate) turn. What "borders on a reflection" of Weston's disposition is part of a conversation that is quite frankly a combination of censure and gossip, since it it prompted by Isabella's reflection on his character--a question of how he could give up his child to the Churchills. It is strange that Emma takes more umbrage at John's defense of Weston, containing as it does an oblique critique of his character but not at Isabella's labeling of living arrangement as beyond comprehension, containing as it does a rather overt critique of Weston's character for allowing it.

Or maybe it isn't strange at all. Perhaps part of the reason she struggled and let it pass was that she could not come up with a way of taking exception to John's conduct here without taking exception at Isabella's.

In any case, this passage is a prime example of how, especially early on (and in a first reading) the strong association with the narrative, semi-omniscient voice and Emma's voice can lull the reader into accepting as fact characterizations and conclusions that the text presents only as Emma's assumptions or interpretations.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Blade Runner: The Final Cut (2007)

"Are you proud of yourself, little man?"

The question, asked by Roy, the replicant (Rutger Hauer), to Deckard (Harrison Ford), echoes at the core of my still developing understanding and appreciation of Ridley Scott's science-fiction masterpiece.

The film finally opened in Durham, North Carolina this weekend, and Cindy took me to see it on the big screen to celebrate my "inception date."

Roy asks the question after Deckard has "retired" Pris (Darryl Hannah), that word being the euphemism for killing.

Of course, one can't "kill" a machine, even a very life-like one, but even though logic and law tells you (and Deckard) that putting bullets into Pris is no different than pulling the plug on a hard drive or slaughtering an animal, something in his conscience tells him otherwise. Something that can't be numbed by all the alcohol he keeps chugging down to still his shaking hands. Pesky things, consciences. We can't retain our humanity without them, but they often make it hard for us to live with ourselves.

Pris's "retirement" is painful to watch. Painful for Deckard and painful for us. Her body jerks in spasms reminiscent of some short circuiting robot, but also of a marionette jerked on a string, or a creation of Frankenstein jolted with electricity. It is the antithesis of so many movie deaths that happen at distance and desensitize us to violence. The deaths, like the moral choices in the film, are not neat, not clean. Things get messy. Things get painful.

Roy wants to know if Deckard can look on his work and call it good.

Blade Runner is, above all else, a film about what makes us human. What is it that Deckard has that the replicants don't that make his life somehow more valuable than their existence? Emotions? Memories? A conscience? A lot of ink has been spilled over the question of whether or not Deckard is himself a replicant, but in the end I'm not sure that how we answer that question is all that relevant to the film's message about respect for all life.

On an intellectual level, the film tells us it may not matter because if we can't distinguish human from replicant than any justification for treating them differently is really doomed to implode under the weight of its own hypocrisy. On an emotional level, the film argues that the sadness and horror our eyes and souls feel at the sight of the replicants' deaths are real, even if the replicants are not. And the reality of that emotion trumps and overpowers whatever arguments we make to ourselves to try to convince ourselves that it is okay.

In an election year that has seen a resurgence of debates about the justification of torture, Blade Runner reminds us that violence always extracts a price on those who use it, not just on those who receive it. Each time we act in violence a part of our own humanity is lost, or at least repressed. So even if we can convince ourselves that the objects of our violence are not covered under whatever moral or legal code we operate under, we can't escape the fact that the agents of violence are haunted and scarred by the experience of using it.

As an aside, the film holds up very well on a technical level, which was a relief. It is always a dangerous thing to revisit a film around which there is a mystique, lest the actual fact fails to live up to your memory of it. Blade Runner may not have the "wow" factor it did in the 1980s in regards to its special effects or art design, but unlike many contemporary action or genre pieces, there is something there in addition to spectacle, so once the giddy rush of spectacle (or the warm wave of nostalgia) wears off, there is still a core of ideas within the film for the viewer to contemplate.

Link to my interview with Doug Cummings about Blade Runner, at The Matthews House Project.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Another Word on "A Promise to the Dead"

I always feel bad after a morning descrying arguments or ideas I don't like rather than promoting ideas, films, or causes that I found of value.

So I thought I'd add a postscript to my recent post about the silliness of making lists of films that portray Christianity in a positive light by mentioning that of the 2007 films that comprised my ten favorite viewing experiences, "A Promise to the Dead: The Exile Journey of Ariel Dorfman," while not a commercial, Hollywood release, does portray Christianity in a positive light.

At least I think it does.

It tells of individual Christians and parts of their institutions seeking to shelter and help people who were being terrorized by the Pinochet regime.

Of course, it also portrays people who weren't Christian doing the same. And it portrays many who acted who are not specifically identified as Christians but could well have been. Which is, I guess, my point.

There is a scene in the film that affected me emotionally. Dorfman is recollecting taking asylum in an embassy and walking on the grounds when a sleeping bag goes over the wall followed by gunshots. It is unclear whether someone has been killed trying to get into the compound or, knowing he was about to be killed, used his last few seconds to give what little he had to someone else who needed it.

It reminded me of a story my brother once told me about my family history. We had an elder brother who was murdered in a restaurant hold-up. One of the personal effects that was eventually returned to us was the watch my murdered brother was wearing. Eventually, either the glass or the battery had to be replaced, and when the watch face was removed, a ring of dried blood was present around the outer rim of the watch face.

It made my brother realize that someone--someone he or I maybe never met--had to have taken the time to very carefully clean that watch before he or she returned it to us. Not a pleasant job. How much easier it might have been to just tell us it was not retrievable or in a condition we wouldn't want. Yet whoever did it had to know that having the watch back would alleviate some of the family's pain just as getting it back soaked in blood would have added to it.

Have you ever tried to get blood off or out of something that was saturated in it?

My point is, in the face of such acts, it just seems petty 1 to me to ask or wonder whether the person who did it specifically identified himself as a Christian and was consciously motivated by that fact.

The fruits of the spirit include love, joy, peace, kindness, compassion, longsuffering, faithfullness...and my understanding is that these are qualities not natural to fallen men, qualities inspired and motivated by the spirit of God working in us and through us whether we know it or not--for, as George MacDonald says, sometimes God approaches us from behind, and we do not sense or know He is drawing closer until He overtakes us.

I just wish sometimes that we weren't so poor and petty in the things we could thank God for...in our lives or in our films. MacDonald again:

If then we go wrong, it will be in the direction of the right, and with such aberration as will be easier to correct then what must come of refusing to imagine, and leaving the dullest traditional prepossessions to rule our hearts and minds, with no claim but the poverty of their expectation from the paternal riches.

1"Petty" is, I realize, both a snarky and a charged word choice here. But I couldn't think of a more apt word choice.

Helping Kids See Great Films

I've mentioned before in this blog that I find Kiva to be a places where I generally end up feeling good about sending a charitable donation. (They provide no interest micro-loans to needy entrepreneurs.)

Today I got a letter from Facets, a resource I've used to rent hard to find films only available on VHS such as Antonioni's "The Red Desert" or Bresson's "The Devil, Probably."

The letter mentioned that Facets has "set out to empower all children by creating an astonishing archive of the best non-violent, humanistic films for children" that could be viewed in screenings for little or no cost and that children could borrow free of charge.

Over 30,000 children attended the Chicago International Film Festival last year. I believe art can transform lives and bring hope to those who must struggle against daily realities far more harsh than those I have to confront.

Among some of the programs they are having trouble funding:

1) Free screenings of "non-violent humanistic films for children."
2) Free VHS rentals of these films to inner city kids.
3) Replacement of these VHS films with DVDS when available.
4) Chicago International Children's Film Festival.
5) Young Chicago Critics summer media art camp. (70% of kids who
attend do so on scholarship)


These seem like worthy programs to me.

The next time you and/or your friends go to the movies, why not lay aside the cost of one extra ticket as though you were taking someone with you who could not afford it? Then, why not send that money to Facets to help them continue these worthy programs.

I was priviliged as a child to have access to books and films.

Is Hollywood Prejudiced Against Christians or are Christians Prejudiced Against Hollywood?

Okay, I don't normally do this, but I'm going to link here to a conversation or thread on another blog. Over at Looking Closer, my friend Jeffrey Overstreet asked for "Hollywood movies made since the turn of the millennium that present Christianity in a positive light" to supplement a list made by another critic/friend of his.

Normally, I would just post a comment at his blog, but since I have a few choice words about the question and since my response could be qualified as a "rant," I'd rather not stir things up needlessly on someone else's turf when he or she is trying to sincerely address or answer a question that I think is both loaded and stupid.

Anyway, here are some of my thoughts about biases and who really has them:


One problem with the request (not the list) is that few good movies portray *anything* in an unequivocally, unambiguously, consistently good light.

Laying aside momentarily the qualification of since 2000 and just focusing on the criteria for inclusion on the list…

By Christianity do we mean Christians (or those who profess to be) or the religion of Christianity? To what extent is the religion of Christianity conflated with the institutions that include its adherents? Do films such as "Honeydripper," "A Man For All Seasons," or "Becket" that depict individuals of faith and contrasts them with other, negative characters of faith qualify as positive portrayals? How do we treat or think of films that show people in the process of faith development--characters who may not be entirely positive or negative in their
behavior but are growing (or seeking to grow) in their understanding of what it means to be Christian? (I'm thinking of characters such as Sarah Miles in "The End of the Affair" or Frankie Dunn in "Million Dollar Baby.")

Do the characters that are portrayed favorably in "Amazing Grace" and are Christian offset or trump the characters in the same film that are portrayed negatively and are Christian? (Does "The Sopranos" portray Italian-Americans in a positive or negative light? It might depend on if you look at Melfi or Tony.)

Are characters such as Clarice Starling in "Silence of the Lambs" or John Anderton in "Minority Report" ever or sufficiently associated with Christianity to the extent that the moral choices they make cast their* faith* in a good light, or must a film make an explicit, overt (and heavy-handed) connection between a character's faith and his/her moral choices in order to qualify as a positive portrayal of religion? Must the character announce before every good deed, "I am doing this because I am a Christian; were I not, I would make a different, more evil and selfish choice instead"?

In my experience, those who ask for such lists are seldom satisfied with implicit or implied positive representations and will often quibble or outright disagree as to whether or not a portrayal is "positive." Is Christianity portrayed positively in "Mississippi Burning"? In "Ragtime"? In "Ordet"? In "The Dekalog"? We're talking about art, not propaganda for heaven's sake; the answer when applying the question to any half-way decent work of art is almost always going to be "yes and no."

In other words, the phrases "portray," "Christianity," and "in a positive light," are all hopelessly subjective and (I would argue) hopelessly ambiguous. (Not to mention people at Jeff's blog are already parsing what "Hollywood" means...studio funded? studio distributed? made independently by people who live in or are from Hollywood area?)

Try substituting just about any abstract or group noun for "Christianity" and ask for the same list. Please name me 20 Hollywood films that portray "Hispanics" or "women" or "Authority figures" or "democracy" or "capitalism" or "liberals" or "conservatives" or "muslims," or "atheists" or “librarians” or “salesmen” or “people who practice any form of birth control” in a "positive light”...remembering examples seems to me to be about equally difficult, which suggests to me that the difficulty in deriving such a lists says more about the poor way the question is framed than about some ideological hegemony in Hollywood.

The request also depends on the fact that we tend to remember anecdotal examples that confirm our hypotheses more readily and easily than those that don't. Compare the following three requests...

1) Off the top of your head, without running off to Google or IMDB, name 20 Hollywood films since 2000 that have a car chase.
2) Off the top of your head, without running off to Google or IMDB, name 20 Hollywood films that depict successful and meaningful inter-racial friendships.
3) Off the top of your head, without running off to Google or IMDB, name 20 Hollywood films since 2000.

My point here is that the ease or difficulty in formulating any of these lists has as much to do with what makes something memorable as it does with how frequent the thing is. If I immediately provided you with 20 examples of #1 and #2, would that really convince you that #1 and #2 were equally prevalent in the movies, or would you walk away still convinced of your opinion that Hollywood is “pro car chase” and “anti inter-racial friendship”?

I refuse to play this game (defend Hollywood from claims of anti-Christian bias by pointing to anecdotal examples), not because the odds are stacked against me but because the rules and Pharisaical judges are. The way the question is formulated and presented makes it appear to me that it is not a serious request for a reasoned argument but a statement of opinion in the rhetorical form of a question--an opinion (that Hollywood is biased against Christians) that is fraught with its own assumptions and prejudices, and those of the type that are seldom, in my experience, assuaged or deterred by reasoning or contrary data.

None of this means, of course, that this particular stereotype (that Hollywood has, on the whole, a negative attitude towards Christianity) isn’t, in fact true.

Stereotypes sometimes have a seed of truth in them or an origin in fact (before they become distorted or exaggerated). But the same could be said of anti-Christian stereotypes.

Are we so confident, I wonder, in how virtuous we are and how virtuously we act in and towards the rest of the world, that the only possible explanation for a negative reputation is an irrational and unfair prejudice? Could it be—I’m just asking—that one reason so many Christians are portrayed as jerks in contemporary media is that a lot of Christians act like jerks in contemporary society?

Just a thought.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Movie Prayers--Becket (x2) (1964)

"Lord...what do you really want me to do? To remain here, a poor monk in simplicity of spirit? Is it a path to bring me nearer to you? Or is it too easy a way, perhaps even...a luxury? Path to holiness in this monastery is too effortless. I think it will be too easy to buy you like this...bargain price. It has pleased you to make me archbishop, and to set me, like a solitary pawn, face to face with the king on the chessboard. I think you mean me to defend your honor--peacefully if I can, with argument and with compromise. If I cannot...then with the full challenge of my office and the soaring force of what I know to be right. So...I shall take up the miter again, and the golden cope, and the great silver cross, and I shall go and fight with the weapons it has pleased you to give me. For the rest...thy will be done."

Saturday, January 12, 2008

What's Better? -- Becket vs. A Man For All Seasons

The reason I ask is that I've been slogging my way through Becket recently. While it is nice and all as an historical drama, I find myself annoyed at Becket's perfection. The character isn't smug, but the movie strikes me as smug. Henry is so over-the-top immature, and there is no encounter where Becket doesn't seem to come out smelling like a saint. (Perhaps, with the exception of when he tells his beloved who has just been taken by Henry that if the king tires of her, he won't take her back.)

I also find the expository prayer to be a grating device. Rather than allowing us to figure out Becket's emotions or character, we just have dialog in which he announces it in the form of prayer.

My question, though, stems from the fact that most people could make (or have made) the same comments about More in A Man For All Seasons, a movie that I'm actually quite fond of.

Is there a difference between the two? Or is it just the time periods in my life when I saw them?

Before the Devil Knows You're Dead (2007)

It's probably not a good sign that every theme evoked by Before the Devil Knows You're Dead reminded me of another, better work.

And, no, I'm not even thinking about No Country For Old Men here. Devil does have the misfortune of following the Coens's work, though, if for no other reason than those who who like nihilistic movies about venal murderers may have already had their fill.

What I am thinking about is how The Sopranos presented characters who were too enmeshed in evil to get out but not yet so far enmeshed that they ceased to feel pain for their own acts or hope that there still might be a way out.

What I am thinking about is how Hank's (Ethan Hawke) daughter performs the final speech from King Lear at a school assembly to key audiences into the fact that latent family conflicts might have as much to do with the violence that ensues as the sons' need of money.

What I am thinking about is how Pulp Fiction used the fractured, non-chronological narrative to make the audience rethink the meaning of what it had already seen instead of just evoking a sense of inevitable fatalism.

What I am thinking about is how Charles Hanson's (Albert Finney) walk off into the sunse..er, fluorescent lighting simultaneously managed to evoke both the end of Million Dollar Baby and the beginning of just about every episode of Six Feet Under.

It wasn't horrible. The acting was good. It all just seemed a little too familiar.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Movie Prayers--Becket (1964)

Dear Lord...I wish there was something I really regretted parting with so that I might offer it to you. But forgive me, Lord...it's like going on a holiday. I've never enjoyed myself so much in my whole life. Lord...are you sure you're not laughing at me? It all seems...far too easy.

Netflix Queue Housecleaning--Part II

The following were my additions to my Netflix Queue based on my friends' lists of favorite discoveries in 2007. Wonder how many I'll get to see?

Les Miserables
My Brother's Wedding
Cria Cuervos
The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On
Christmas in July
Le Notti Blanche
The House is Black
Flowers of Shanghai
F for Fake
Monsieur Verdoux
Kiss Me Deadly
Films of Kenneth Anger (Vol. 1)
Knife in the Water
Donkey Skin
The Young Girls of Rochefort

Saturday, January 05, 2008

Emma (56-59)--"I wish Jane Fairfax very well, but she tires me to death."

The second half of Volume I, Chapter 10 pretty much repeats the structure and purpose of the charade episode, with Emma comically failing to judge Elton's actions rightly due to her misconceptions about what she thinks he feels for Harriet.

The serial nature of the plot does make for some repetition in the central parts of each volume, contributing to what strikes some as the plodding speed of the plot. The extent to which the themes rely on repetition (especially for comedy) provides a challenge for those wishing to adapt the plot to another medium--especially film--where a single instance of an action or behavior might have to stand in for a series of conversations. Repetitions emphasize the habitual nature of some actions, which I think is an important element to keep foregrounded in a novel such as Emma that focuses on character development. Emma's transformation can be gradual, allowing dramatic or climatic moments to serve as a points of revelation and culmination without placing on them the expectation that they have to be life-changing in and of themselves.

The length of the plot also allows a rich tapestry of secondary characters to be woven. If Jane Austen is second to anyone in literary reputation, it is Shakespeare, and that is usually because the latter has a breadth that some find lacking in the former's concentration on two or three country families. It is interesting how many secondary characters are introduced to the reader through Emma's comments or descriptions prior to their appearance on stage. If Pride and Prejudice is preoccupied with first impressions, Emma is equally preoccupied with prejudices--impressions created prior to any contact. Why, for instance, does it take us so long to realize Frank Churchill's faults except that we are expecting him (like Emma) to be the worthy person she has already decided he is? Conversely, why do we look past Knightley's rather on-the-nose estimations of why Emma dislikes Jane Fairfax?

When Harriet asks Emma if she is acquainted with Jane Fairfax, we get the following response:

Oh! yes; we are always forced to be acquainted whenever she comes to Highbury. By the bye, that is almost enough to put one out of conceit with a niece. Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so much about all the Knightley's together, as [Miss Bates] does about Jane Fairfax. One is sick of the very name of Jane Fairfax. Every letter from her is read forty times over; her compliments to all friends go round and round again, and if she does but send her aunt the pattern of a stomacher, or knit a pair of garters for her grandmother, one hears of nothing else for a month. I wish Jane Fairfax well, but she tires me to death. (56)

There is, of course, more in here about Miss Bates than Jane Fairfax. Even Emma seems partially aware of that fact with her final "I wish Jane Fairfax well." It is the subject of Jane Fairfax that tires her, not the person. The person of Jane Fairfax has no real chance, though, for by the time she arrives on the scene, there is nothing she can say or do that can change the fact that she has already worn out her non-welcome.

It is worth holding this passage up to the earlier one in the chapter in which Emma claims she has none of the usual inducements to marry. Scarcely a few moments earlier, Emma has said that she could never expect to be "so truly beloved and important; so always first and always right" (55) as she is in her father's eyes . This combination of pride and doting that Emma values so highly in her own father she finds tedious in Miss Bates and vows to not replicate in her own treatment of Isabella's children.

This could simply be another indication of Emma's hypocrisy--a double standard that is covered with a veneer of manners that makes it appear less narcissistic than it really is. It is interesting that this speech is followed immediately by a description of Emma's and Harriet's charitable visit to a cottage where Emma was "very compassionate" and we are told that "the distresses of the poor were as sure of relief from her personal attention and kindness, her counsel and her patience, as from her purse" (57).

Emma, in other words, seems capable of genuine altruism and compassion. Not just capable of it--practiced in it. For the ease in which she gives of herself and not just her purse is not a natural thing.

Before I go on to a fuller contrast of these two passages, let me make an aside here about charity. It is a virtue that those who possess seldom get enough credit for exercising because they are often the objects of envy for their ability to possess it. Stated differently, we always excuse ourselves for our lack of charity on the grounds of our own limited resources and like to think (and claim) that were we rich, we would, of course, be more gracious in our giving than we are at present. There is a big difference, though, between giving and giving graciously, and Emma is a model of instruction in the latter. Consider that she does not feel or act as though the giving of money entitles her to withhold her "personal attention." This passage inevitably makes me think back to the opening sentence of the novel and remind myself that we may prejudge Emma based on what we are told--she is handsome, clever, and rich--and that those prejudices can form static that interfere with our ability to fairly and accurately judge all her character (and not just those parts that conform to our expectations).

The contrast between these two glimpses of Emma--one blithely, hypocritically egoistic, the other altruistic and gracefully lacking in pretentiousness--lies at the heart, I think, of so many conflicting interpretations of her character and of the novel. The easiest way to resolve it is to do what we tend to do in real life--reject one of the images as a mask and insist the other is the "true" person. If we are looking for reasons to dismiss the good as a facade, we can usually find it. (We might note how quickly Emma's and Harriet's claims that being confronted with these "poor creatures" have banished all "trifling" thoughts from their mind give way to make room for schemes involving broken boot laces, and we wouldn't be wrong to note the irony in such a juxtaposition. But we would be wrong to dismiss the possibility that Emma's "yet, who can say how soon it may all vanish from my mind!" could indicate a growing self-awareness and a spirit genuinely troubled at sustaining its commitment to its better impulses.)

Which Emma we choose as the real one may have more to do with our own experiences with the rich, young, and privileged than with a careful weighing of the evidence in this particular case. Increasingly, I find with my own students, there is a tendency to believe that the former Emma is the real one--a sort of prototype of the villains in Lindsay Lohan's Mean Girls. Maybe that shouldn't surprise me since most of us have been in the position of Harriet or Jane more often than that of Emma, and absent being in another's shoes it is very difficult to accurately assess the effort needed to be patient, attentive, or charitable.

Not that I want to insist that the charitable Emma is the only real Emma and that the catty, selfish nature she exhibits in talking about Jane Fairfax is a momentary lapse. There are already too many examples of this sort of behavior to dismiss them as anomalies. What I will insist on, though, is that Emma is a work in progress. Her character is not yet fully formed. Mrs. Elton, Miss Bates, even Mr. Woodhouse, are less mirrors for what Emma is as they are reflections of what she might become. Even Emma senses this, with her "Heaven forbid! at least, that I should ever bore people half so much..." (56). She may be "convinced" that "there never can be any likeness" between her and Miss Bates except in their being unmarried (55), but within five minutes time she has let escape a subconscious fear that she is already more like her than she cares to admit and so could very easily fall into the same patterns of behavior she currently loathes.

It is difficult to portray characters evolving and changing, more difficult to show them doing so gradually. As much as I love Elizabeth Bennett, this reason may account for me being more fond of Emma. Elizabeth appears on the page already admirably mature and her setbacks are opportunities for her to exhibit character. In Emma we get a chance to see how that character can come to be.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention before closing that the being kind or patient with a relative stranger or acquaintance is quite different from exercising those same qualities in the face of a regular companion. This is not the first passage in Emma that reminds me of C.S. Lewis's careful dissection of familiar relationships in The Screwtape Letters. One would think that it would be easiest to exercise patience with those whom one claims to love the most, but perversely, the converse can be true. The familiarity with the faults of others and the constancy with which one is confronted with them can have as much to do with our responses to them as the predisposition we bring to relationships to attempt patience. One could, I suppose, see a connection between the emotional energy expended by Emma being patient with her father or with the objects of charity and her inability to be patient with Miss Bates, the energy spent showing personal interest in the poor and friendless and her inability to muster any personal interest in Jane Fairfax. It might even be accurate to claim that the poor woman who is the object of Emma's better impulses is not a threat to Emma's superiority. Knightley will claim as much. He will also realize, though, that recognizing this doesn't render the charity, compassion or interest she does manage to show (to those she manages to show it to) less real or less sincere. They are as much the expressions of the real Emma as are the slights towards Jane or Miss Bates.

[For more close readings of Emma, please click on the labels to this post below.]

Thursday, January 03, 2008

A few more words about "Knocked Up" (2007)

The traditional end-of-the-year "10 Best Lists" got me to thinking about some of the films that I watched. My friend Russell Lucas shares my appreciation for Knocked Up. He gave some responses at a discussion group to comments I had made about the film that got me thinking about the issue of ideology and how it affects my appreciation of what the film is doing.

Don't get me wrong. I agree with my friend that the film isn't primarily a polemic. It has some interesting insights in its description of contemporary life, nevertheless.

I remember one of the more helpful talks from Inter-Varsity days at Mary Washington was when our campus staff worker introduced the idea that how people act can often be a better marker of what they believe than how they would answer a direct question about their beliefs. Actions are at the very least, windows into beliefs that we often keep hidden, even for ourselves.

In applying this idea to "Knocked Up," I think it is worth noting how much of the confusion felt by Ben and Alison over what they want is exacerbated--(I can't bring myself to say "caused")--by the contradictory messages they get from those ready to offer them advice. There is no shortage of people ready to tell them what they believe they should do...but how well do those beliefs coincide with their own actions?

Consider the three people in their circle (a friend of Ben's and Alison's sister and mother) who advise that abortion is the best answer. None of them can actually come out and say the word. Alison's confidants use the euphemism "take care of it." Perhaps this could be chalked up to sensitivity in the presence of a pregnant woman, but Ben's friend is an even odder case. Alison is not around when Ben's friend suggests that they take a course of action that "rhymes with shmooshsmortion."

This is a group of guys that are designing a porn web site, fart on each other's pillows, and generally revel in their adolescent regressive behavior. They are neither politically sensitive nor politically correct, but the very word "abortion" holds some sort of talismanic power over them that makes its utterance a line that can't be crossed.

This hesitation to speak plainly about the topic from characters who consider themselves enlightened (on Alison's side) or liberated (on Ben's) suggests that to some extent both of those exteriors are more moral facades projected to the social world than true convictions or beliefs that control or moderate their behavior.

The contrasting example is Ben's dad (played by Harold Ramis) who counsels him to "deal with it." This advice is a striking contrast to Alison's mom and Ben's friends, yet does it come from a place of personal conviction? When pressed, later in the film, Ben's father owns to his own moral hypocrisy. He reminds Ben that he has been married multiple times and expresses surprise that Ben would come to him for advice based on the model he has been.

Does the fact that he has not exercised much commitment in his own personal relationships with women mean that Ben's father does not believe this is what Ben "should" do ? Of course not. People often fail to live up to their own standards. It does raise the question of where those standards come from and why they persist even in the face of cultural norms and practices that would seem to make it much easier for the characters in the film (and those like them) to shrug off those beliefs than they actually find it to do so.

These sorts of internal conflicts make the film more ideologically ambiguous and, I would argue, more real. Perhaps in the public, political sphere, there are some people who speak in policy statements, but the world I interact with has a lot more people who talk and act and reveal themselves (internal conflicts and all) through personal interactions.

If the film is ideologically ambiguous (or even ideologically indifferent) as to the answer to the question of abortion, it is still, I think, a morally probing and perhaps even subversive film in the way it depicts (I started to write "draws attention to" but it doesn't really spotlight or draw attention to) Ben's and Alison's quandary and the cluelessness they have about how to approach it.

Because the real confusion Ben and Alison have is not about what to do. That is decided fairly early. (Oh, there is some subversive ideology, I suppose, in revealing how doing the "right thing" forces Alison to lie to her employer because society has its own hypocritical ability to provide rewards for what it says it detests and punish those who act in ways it says it finds virtuous.) Really, Ben and Alison are at a lost for how to make a decision. How can one (or two) sensibly and reasonably apply a set of criteria to a decision when there is no anchor or perspective from which to evaluate the criteria?

What the film portrays fairly realistically, I think, is not so much a world without morals but a world without moral instruction. In a world that values pluralism, tolerance, and (above all) personal freedom, instruction on which criteria to use and how to apply it is looked upon as robbing the young of the freedom to choose for themselves. When you add to that a reluctance on the part of the adults to advocate for criteria that they have rejected in their own lives or for criteria that hasn't served them, you get the comedic equivalent of Anton Chigurgh asking of what use is a (personal belief) system if that system brought the person holding it to a point where it fails to address his most basic questions or meet her most basic spiritual and emotional needs.

It is telling that Alison is first hurt by Ben's refusal to read the baby books then heartened by his willingness to do so. What is important is not so much that he enacts any of the suggestions so that he can tell her what to do but that he can provide information to her (like what is a bloody show) that make the mystifying or confusing elements of her process slightly less bewildering. This is the sort of biological or experiential knowledge that one might expect Alison to have received from a parent, but her mother and sister are more interested in expressing doubt and dismay at her partner than helping her process and enact her decision.

Combine the emotional distance of the parents with the inevitable comic disappearance of Alison's carefully chosen gynecologist when she goes into labor, and it begins to crystalize that one of the major themes of the film is abandonment. Indeed one of the central mysteries/questions of the film, one that its critics feel it doesn't answer well, is how these characters are able to grope their way towards some sort of commitment. Would it not be more plausible to have these characters mirror what they have been "taught," if only by example? From whence does the sense of responsibility come from if not consistent moral instruction and example?

Perhaps it comes from a deep well of hurt that makes them cling to the possibility of commitment and responsibility, even in the face of difficult circumstances, extreme odds, and nay-sayers. Perhaps the absence of moral instruction could have been interpreted by the younger generation as indifference to them rather than embarrassment of the elder generation, an indifference that steels their resolve to not be responsible for similar hurt by being the agents of similar abandonment.

I think the reason I appreciated "Knocked Up" more than some more explicitly ideological films (or films that wear their ideology on their sleeve and use their narrative to tell the audience what to believe rather than allow it to witness the realistic results of those who actually do) is that it shows characters struggling to achieve value formation, to figure out what they believe and to begin to see what the implications of those beliefs are. That may be why I find it a hopeful film despite the tentative nature of the resolution. I have more faith in Alison's and Ben's ability to develop values that will help them live their lives than I do in the intrinsic power of any "right" set of values adopted wholesale from someplace else to satisfy them enough to keep them together.