Tag Archives: Movie Thoughts

Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Work/Life Balance

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Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Work/Life Balance

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while, but perfectionism and “no that’s stupid, who needs to read that? no one” has gotten in the way.  So here I am. Moira, my nanny-baby, is asleep for maybe another forty five minutes if I’m lucky.

Several months ago, Dan suggested we watch this movie:

Jiro Dreams of Sushi

Jiro Dreams of Sushi.

I’m not a huge documentary watcher (Dan is), so I was hesitant. But it ended up being one of the most fascinating films I’ve ever seen. Watch the trailer here and rent it on Netflix if you can. I’ve never seen sushi look so good.

Quick Summary: Jiro Ono is an 85 year old sushi chef who is supposed to be the most talented sushi chef in the world.  His restaurant seats only ten people.  One plate costs around $100. You have to train for fifteen years just to be an apprentice.  People travel to Japan just to eat his sushi.

You get the picture.  The film focuses on Jiro’s fame but also on his philosophy of work:

Once you decide on your occupation, you have to immerse yourself in your work.  You have to fall in love with your work.  You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret to success.

The reviews in the poster above call Jiro’s “breathtaking, inspirational, and humbling,” and that’s true.  Listening to this man’s advice on work was very humbling. For me, it really put into perspective some of the complaints I had at my first two jobs out of college –that the expectations were too high, the hours too long. In some ways, that’s just what you have to do to succeed in your occupation, in your skill.

But another word I would use to describe the movie is “horrifying.” A sub-theme in the documentary is Jiro’s relationship with his two sons.  Both are in their forties or fifties and both are sushi chefs.  The first son is filmed saying (with a smile, so he must have gotten over it) “I wanted to go to college.  my father talked me out of it.  For the first eight years, I hated working here.”

In another scene, the two sons sit together discussing their childhood with the interviewer. They recall (again, laughing, so maybe this is just a cultural thing I’m not getting) waking up on Sunday mornings to find their father in the house. They would be so unused to seeing him that they would run to their mother (this is the only time she is mentioned in the film) saying, “Mom, there’s a stranger in the house!”

In this way, the documentary reminded me of another film I absolutely LOVE, which also features a highly successful… individual.

941158_494505903965114_107295997_n

Why is no one readyyyyyyy?

“The Devil Wears Prada” follows Anne Hathaway’s character as she works the major fashion magazine Runway for the magazine’s Executive Director Miranda (played by Meryl Streep).  Though Hathaway really wants to work as a serious (non-fashion) journalist, she takes the job as Streep’s assistant because editors tell her it will be a major stepping stone.  “A million girls would kill for that job.”

Hathaway starts out frumpy and skeptical, but (through many twists, turns, and awesome makeover scenes) she comes to respect Miranda and the work that she does.  The movie ends, however, with Hathaway making the decision to leave the position because she repeatedly sees Miranda putting her work before the people in her life, and Andy (Hathaway’s character) sees herself beginning to follow in Miranda’s footsteps.

It’s a great movie.  But there’s one scene I never really got. Andy jump starts her big Transformation after a devastating (but oh so fun to watch) dress-down from Miranda for her attitude towards fashion.  Exhausted and humiliated, Andy goes crying to a coworker (played by Stanely Tucci) and tells him, “I don’t know what to do.  I’m really trying–” to which Tucci replies, “Oh please. Honey. You’re not trying.”

When I first saw this scene, I sat there staring at the screen, thinking I’d missed a line. “What do you mean? Of course she’s trying. She puts up with Miranda. She does everything Miranda says…”

But that’s not the point.  Hathaway has not “fallen in love with her work.” She hasn’t entered deeply into the craft.  She hasn’t even entertained the possibility that the fashion world could have some importance she doesn’t grasp.  There is no passion there. She’s not trying.

On the other hand, both Jiro’s and Miranda’s stories show the downfall of working with that kind of passion.  As I said, Jiro literally looked like a stranger to his own sons.  Miranda goes through her third divorce before the movie’s end.  Neither are really able to sustain healthy relationships in or outside of the office.

This whole meditation had an interesting tie-in with yesterday’s Gospel and homily.

St. Martha

Is this not the craziest depiction of St. Martha (or any saint) you have ever seen??

Our priest’s homily was actually about how it’s NOT bad to work hard! (Seems like a tough pitch with that whole “Martha Martha” thing in the background, right?) He encouraged us to look at the Gospel in light of the Old Testament reading, which sows Abraham and Sarah working very hard to welcome the Three Visitors to their home (making bread, killing the fatted calf, etc. etc.).

According to our priest, the juxtaposition of these two stories is supposed to show us that Abraham’s attention (and Mary’s, in the Gospel) to God is what sanctifies his actions.  First, Abraham notices God passing by. Next, he invites Him to say. Finally, he sits down with the Lord and listens to him. All of his actions are ordered towards a relationship with God.

So, the answer to this whole Work/Life Balance thing, according to Father Bob? Well, it’s a… balance.  Only by maintaining this active relationship with the Trinity will we know when to stop serving the Lord and start listening.

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MOVIE THOUGHTS: The Great Gatsby (or “A Fundamental Misunderstanding of Hope and Love”)

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It’s probably not good that I am proud of myself for having ONLY a week and a half between this post and the last one. Mental Note: Aim HIGHER, Rach!

Since I started at the end of the last movie, this time I am going to start at the …TITLE! (I’m going to cheat a little because Luhrman closes the movie with a shot about the title.) The Great Gatsby. The operative word here is “great” and it poses the central question of the book and movie: Is Gatsby actually “Great”?

Luhrman seems to be convinced that he is. So, my favorite starting point: after Nick finished typing the last iconic line of the book on his proto-hipster typewriter, he flips all his papers back to the title page which says only


GATSBY.

Above this he writes in painfully sincere handwritten script: “The Great”.
Again, Luhrman gives us his moral judgement on the movie and the characters: GATSBY IS GREAT, GUYS!

The problem is that he’s not. Not that I’m saying any of the other characters are either:

Cast

Daisy is a beautiful and weak-willed fool, who becomes a beautiful and weak-willed adulteress, and finally a beautiful and weak-willed murderess. Tom is a “cruel bodied” philandering, racist misogynist. Jordan is a bored liar. Myrtle is a tramp. Wilson is a dupe then a murderer. Wolfsheim is a gangster. The party goers are users attempting to anesthetize themselves to life. Nick is the guy who prides himself on reserving judgment on people, yet narrates one of the most snidely judgmental books of all time. BUT their frailties do not make Gatsby great by comparison! This is the point that Luhrman seems to miss in his rush to help us sympathize with the DiCaprio character (just like in R and J!)

The funny difference here is that DiCaprio has become a better and a smarter actor – he plays Gatsby exactly as Fitzgerald wrote him: Charismatic. Attractive. False, and in that falseness- subtly, but profoundly unsettling. I should give Luhrman some credit. The screen play he uses is rigidly accurate to the characters’ dialogue from the novel. Even the scenes are picture perfect.The problems come in his additions to narration of Nick Carraway. Henceforth I will distinguish Luhrman’s narrator as Narrator Nick!

NARRATOR NICK!

NARRATOR NICK!

Narrator Nick!, after seeing Gatsby hide the truth of Daisy’s crime, casts Gastby’s life in the following light: He loved Daisy so much that he imagined and hoped the perfect world into existence for her. “Gatsby was a Son of God and as such must be about his father’s business.” Narrator Nick seems to view this business of world-making by imagination and power of will. Gatsby, coming from from nothing, through his colossal HOPE creates the perfect world. The fact that Gatsby (SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER!) dies alone is mostly because Daisy and Tom suck a whole bunch. Gatsby is Great because he is the Patron Saint of and Martyr to HOPE! 

It's alarming how charming he feels!!!

It’s alarming how charming he feels!!!

If that were true, then we could really take the title “The Great Gatsby” un-ironically. He never let the world, or reality, or Daisy’s rejection get him down. He hoped eternally. Isn’t that great?

angry-no

The problem is that hope is not real hope which denies reality.

I offer this alternate interpretation of Gatsby’s life: He is a man who creates the Platonic ideal of who he should be at the age of 17 and never allows it to change. He manipulates, lies, and steals in order to bring it all to pass. He does not participate in or take over God’s work in world making. Rather, (here I finish the Fitzgerald fragment that I think Luhrman based his interpretation of the novel on) “Gatsby is a son of God and as such must be about his Father’s business – the service of a vast and meretricious beauty.”

Definition of MERETRICIOUS 1: of or relating to a prostitute. 2: tawdrily and falsely attractive Sound FAMILIAR?

Definition of MERETRICIOUS
1: of or relating to a prostitute.
2: tawdrily and falsely attractive
Sound FAMILIAR?

Put bluntly: Gatsby creates a falsely perfect world – an attractive whore of a world, which he props up and protects by never allowing the invasion of anything real. He cannot bear the threat posed by any part of the world that does not fall into his delusion because reality and its attendants – Alteration, Change, and Growth – all must stand as enemies of Gatsby’s world. Gatsby is not a patron saint of Hope because there is no need for hope in a complete world. It is done. Finished. Perfect. Not for one moment does Gatsby allow himself to truly dwell in the dirty, changing, imperfect, beautiful world of reality.  

This brings us to Daisy.

Daisy

(AGAIN, I must congratulate DiCaprio again on the scene I am about to describe because it is beautiful … and frightening.) After Daisy and Gatsby’s whirlwind rekindled romance, Gatsby begins to pressure Daisy to leave Tom, her husband,  but not just to leave Tom: to leave him, saying that she loves Gatsby, has always loved only Gatsby, and has never loved Tom.  When she is unable to do so, he flies at her – wide-eyed, shaking her, shouting – and tries to force the words from her.

Whose charming now?

Who’s charming now?

He cannot, and she abandons him and his world. Even then, he does not see this or her. He is utterly convinced that she is his and only his. 

This is not hope. This is delusion. This is closing his eyes to the real woman in front of him in favor of the Imaginary Daisy who would never have married Tom. Real love is seeing another person rightly and willing and hoping for the best for them. Gatsby does not love Daisy because he cannot see her.

Notice that he DOES NOT EVEN LOOK AT HER.

Notice that he DOES NOT EVEN LOOK AT HER.

Somewhere along the line, his service to and protection of “the vast and meretricious beauty” he has imagined has superseded any love he has for the real, weak, frail, fallible, beautiful woman he avowedly seeks. As such, he cannot hope for her. He cannot will the best for her because that would be to admit that his creation is not the best.

I would argue that Fitzgerald understood this. He leaves Nick’s trustworthiness as a judge of character and sincerity as a narrator enough in question that we must watch Gatsby’s actions. In DiCaprio’s performance, we are still afforded that opportunity to see through Gatsby’s charm to the 17-year-old boy who refused to grow up. Gatsby is “Great” only in his own imagination, which he refuses to leave.

The problem with Luhrman’s interpretation, built on the additions he has made to Narrator Nick! proclaiming Gatsby’s greatness as rooted in  love and hope, is that he once again undervalues the heroism of real love and real hope by using those words to describe paltry imitations. 

 

So, to counter balance him, I will leave you with a man who understood the true nature of Love as seeing rightly (flaws and dignity, frailties and beauties) and Hope as ceaselessly working to carry the beloved to the BEST world and love’s completion.

SONNET 116
By William Shakespeare.

Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Romeo + Juliet

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BY RACHEL

Guess Who’s Back… back again… Rachel’s back. Tell your friends!

From this you should be able to tell several things:

1 I have been listening to too much Eminem…
2. SCHOOL’S OUT FOR SUMMER!
3. I have started watching movies again.

Specifically Baz Luhrman-y things. My excuse is that my 9th and 10th graders finished out the year with two books (semi)recently adapted by Baz Luhrman into melodramatic and overblown, but (occasionally) well-acted misinterpretations: Romeo and Juliet and The Great Gatsby.

I suppose I should get several things out of the way. I do not hate either of these movies. I don’t mind updating Shakespeare with modern settings and cut lines, so long as the themes remain intact. I like anachronistic soundtracks. I think Luhrman’s interpretation of Mercutio’s “Queen Mab” speech as a statement that Romeo’s type of love is a drug (pre-Ke$ha) is interesting. I think that Gatsby is spectacularly well-acted. I adore the complete lack of the shaky camera that keeps invading movies that I otherwise enjoy. I even kindof like the fact that Luhrman’s movies tend follow this sequence:

1. Cool-filtered and melancholic opening scene foreshadowing the DEPRESSING end of the story by having an angsty narrator look back on the events of the movie.
2. 20 MINUTES OF JUMPY-CUT-BUT-SMOOTH-CAMERA, PSYCHODELIC, FRENETIC, OVERBLOWN, AND ULTIMATELY POINTLESS PARTY SCENES!
3. Sudden shift to the sentimental love-story, marked by slow motion eye-contact and suddenly gentle soundtrack (R and J: Kissing You; Gatsby: Young and Beautiful).
4. Hour and a half of escalating sentimentality, which can only mean Doomed Love (Note the capitalization!)
5. Sad ending, endeavoring to leave the audience somber but not requiring any alteration in their actions, behavior, or lives.

(By the by, just a reminder, I am writing for people who have seen the movies and/or read the books. If you haven’t, either stop reading or prepare to be thoroughly spoiled. YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!) This brings me to my actual problems with the movies.

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Romeo + Juliet

At first I was going to write one monster post on both of these, after all: both movies are by Baz Luhrman, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, underscored by interesting/poppy soundtracks and guilty of parallel misinterpretations! However, I found I had too many thoughts. Sorry!

Let’s get the ball rolling: ROMEO AND JULIET IS A TRAGEDY! Not just because the main characters die. Tragedy is NOT EQUAL to sad. Tragedy is a single unified drama in which we are invited to consider the nature of human character and fate by witnessing the fall of a noble character because of a fundamental ignorance which leads to a transgression act. It is sad, but the goal of the story is not just to have all of the sad feels. We, as an audience, are to purge ourselves of the toxic emotions in order to better consider the moral implications of our choices.

The great danger, to which most modern interpretations of Romeo and Juliet have fallen prey, is taking this as Shakespeare prefiguring Nicholas Sparks.

 i.e. He wrote about “perfect” but depressing love between teenagers whose story ends in death but only because of the general badness of the world (be that badness cancer, mean people, Alzheimers, or feuding parents.)

i.e. He wrote about “perfect” but depressing love between teenagers whose story ends in death but only because of the general badness of the world (be that badness cancer, mean people, Alzheimers, or feuding parents.)

Pardon my french in advance: This is a load of horse shit. Let Shakespeare be the new Sophocles or Aeschylus. LET HIM NEVER BE BLASPHEMED AS THE OLD NICHOLAS SPARKS! Alright, I am calming down. But seriously folks, we must not think of Romeo and Juliet this way. Not to contradict Taylor Swift, but this is NOT a Love Story.

To explain this, I am going to start at the very end. A very weird place to start.

In Shakespeare’s version, we do not have the return of a chorus to tell us the social significance of the play or how we ought to feel. The final lines of the play are the Prince, the civil authority, saying:

A glooming peace this morning with it brings;
The sun for sorrow will not show his head:
Go hence and have more talk of these things;
Some shall be pardoned, some punished:
For never was a tale of more woe
Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

This closing is a command: Go. Think. Talk. Judge. We are asked not simply to say “Gee, that was really sad,” but rather to consider who deserves pity or scorn (pardon or punishment) for the horror at the end of this play. Moreover,  we are pushed to consider the degree to which they deserve pity or scorn. Sorrow is not the object of this lesson; it is the means by which we are pushed to judge – not only the choices of the characters but our own.

That’s Shakespeare.

You fabulous genius, you!

You fabulous genius, you!

Then there is Baz Luhrman.

Tragedy.... I do not think that means what you think it means...

Tragedy…. I do not think that means what you think it means…

Superficially,  we might say that the ending of the movie is the same. Except it isn’t. And if you have read the book, YOU SHOULD NOT STOP THINKING AT LUHRMAN’S INTERPRETATION. GO. TALK. THINK. JUDGE.

So. What is different?

1. Paris doesn’t die. Specifically Romeo does not commit that much less pardonable murder. We’ll come back to that.
2. The Prince has the penultimate, not the final, line. And it is changed. Instead, he screams into the camera:

“ALL ARE PUNISHED! ALL ARE PUNISHED!”

3. The actual last two lines are delivered by the televised talking head who serves as Luhrman’s chorus.

What effect is brought about by these TINY alterations? 

1. Romeo (and Juliet) are more pitiable. I will come back to that.
2. The civil authority does not judge each according to their actions, rather ALL are punished. Consequently, we as the audience have no homework. The characters have been weighed and EVERY single one of those still living has been found wanting. Case closed.
3. The chorus (who first gives us the idea of the “star crossed lovers” … I.e the poor but idealized teenagers whose “perfect love” was just RUINED by fate and their families) has the last words. And those words are…

“Be sad.”

BE SAD!

This is the problem with Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet. He takes away the moral power of a tragedy by presuming the goal of a tragedy is simply sorrow, when in fact, the goal of a tragedy with all of it’s dramatic irony, emotion, transgression, failing, (and yes, even sadness) – is to MAKE US ABLE TO SEE RIGHTLY AND MORALLY.

So, because you are all super nice (if you have read this far) I am going to list (hopefully quickly) my observations as to the actual moral problem presented by Shakespeare.

The transgressions in Romeo and Juliet can be condensed into the failure of understanding the role and responsibilities of vocations.


Vocational Duties in R+J and how they are ABANDONED!

1. Civil/ Political Vocation

THE PRINCE

THE PRINCE

The Prince, as civil authority,  should have stopped and seriously punished this feuding long before this point. Failure to punish and protect is failure indeed. His vocation calls him to the care of his city and its citizens. Because he fails in his civil vocation, there is a vacuum. Someone must restore civil order, presenting an occasion of sin for Friar Laurence.

2. Religious Vocation

FRIAR LAURENCE

FRIAR LAURENCE

Friar Laurence is a priest, specifically he serves as confessor and pastor to the entire town of Verona. His vocation is the care of souls. Yet, because of the “civil strife making civil hands unclean” he abandons this responsibility, starting with his very first scene.

After meeting Juliet, in Act III, Romeo comes tearing into Friar Laurence’s cell gushing about this NEW perfect beloved – Juliet. (This entire act, by the way is Shakespeare calling attention to the fact that Romeo is falling so fast that everyone he meets spends the first have of the interaction assuming that he is gushing about his former infatuation, Rosaline.) Friar Laurence at first says EXACTLY what he ought to. He instructs Romeo in the correct ordering of affections, the fact that his love for both Rosaline and Juliet are mere idolatrous imitations of love. He counsels and counsels well.

Then, he says the following fateful lines:

But come, young waverer, come, go with me,
In one respect I’ll thy assistant be;
For this alliance may so happy prove,
To turn your households’ rancor to pure love.

On the face of this, it is easy to see the good in this. Friar Laurence will use Romeo and Juliet’s loving infatuation to form an alliance between these two warring families and restore peace to Verona.

Did it bother anyone that I just said a priest is going to use (coughSTUPIDcough) teenage infatuation rather than reorder and heal it?

It is a PROBLEM that a Friar is setting aside his vocation to the pastoral care of soul. This failure and abandonment is made more concrete in the last act when Friar Laurence (for fear of the fast approaching civil authorities) abandons a drugged, distraught Juliet in a tomb, pinned down by the corpse of her husband.  To some degree, the blood  and soul of this child is on his hands.

3. Parental Vocation

THE NURSE

THE NURSE

He is not alone in his act of abandonment. All of the parental figures of this play similarly abandon – morally and/or physically. Their vocation to the care and guidance of children, protecting and restraining when necessary.

First, Juliet’s Nurse, in her hurry to approve of everyone, encourages Juliet not only to imprudence, but even to bigamy. She calls everyone she meets “good and wise and virtuous.” Again, this is not in and of itself a problem. After all, isn’t it good to see the best in people?

Except that her want of right judgment deprives Juliet, a 13-year-old girl, of any guidance. Much as we may want all choices to be equal and equally good and wise and virtuous, they are not. In failing to guide Juliet, she essentially morally abandons her.

Second, Juliet’s parents do more than essentially abandon her. They actually do it. When she is reluctant to marry Paris (because she is already married.) Her father vows that he will give her to his friend or cast her out into what ever form of harlotry she wishes. Her mother then refuses to even speak to her.

While I am not saying that Juliet is purely innocent of her suicide, I will say that Shakeapre makes an awfully big deal about how young she is – even for “the olden days.” She is still clearly in need of love, protection, and judicious guidance. This is what parents and guardians are CALLED to provide. She receives none. 

4. Marital Vocation.

ROMEO AND JULIET

ROMEO AND JULIET

This brings me back to my initial point. Romeo and Juliet is not a Love Story. It is an Idolatry Story.  By idolizing one another, Romeo and Juliet fail in the vocation of marriage — the care of the soul of the beloved .

Marriage is not eternal. It has a finish line: Till death do us part. This should not be a sad statement. The point of marriage is not the forever fluffy feelings. Marriage is the vow (of man, wife, and God ) that you will push, pull, and carry your beloved to the perfection and completion of Love Himself in heaven. Marriage is not necessary in heaven.

In the romance of these two children, Shakespeare provides a reminder that our world needs more than ever, showing what this idolatrous erotic love looks like from origin to symptom to inevitable result.

How does it happen?
Juliet falls into idolatry (as teenager girls are wont to do) for the lack of protection. Romeo, on the other hand, arrives at idolatry by refusing wise counsel.

In short, the problem with idolatry is that it makes the universe too small. Instead of a universe created by and governed by an infinite and eternal Love, idolatry limits the world to whatever can be governed by something smaller.

Making an idol of another person begins with limiting our vision of reality and ignoring any signs or counsel that calls to and indicates a higher and wider world.

What does it look like?
Idolatry, because of the blinders it requires, looks like infatuation. It is the exact “us agains the world” mentality. Because of this, I would argue that the only thing that comes close to the religious wars our world has witnessed is the emotional war between a besotted teenager and his or her parent. This is because this love is not rightly ordered. It is not leading toward God and eventually family.

Where does it end?
In suicide. Heaven is abiding in the complete presence of and union with God. If Juliet is god, then Verona (specifically marriage to Juliet in Verona) is heaven. Hell is irrevocable separation from God. If Romeo is banished from the presence of his god, Juliet, then he is in hell.

In making a mortal person into God, suicide is the only logical conclusion. If you are already in hell, why should death and subsequent separation from a God in whom you do not actively believe make any difference?

Ok. That was really long. SORRY!

Basically, here is what I got. Luhrman’s Romeo + Juliet is dangerous, not because he is willfully leading children astray into idolatrous and unhealthy loves. However, this movie is guilty of the very same transgression as the adults in Shakespeare’s play: a failure to care for the formation of the loves and souls of the young. Similarly, under the supposed guidance of this, more children are guilty of confusing idolatry with love. (TWILIGHT. TAYLOR SWIFT. ETC. ETC. ETC.)

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Les Miserables

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For all my promises that I would be “Movie Thoughts” Girl, I have been posting a whole bunch about not movies. Sorry! Part of that is because mostly I have be watching and re-watching rubbish TV shows on Netflix Instant. Because I am cheap. And super busy. (By the way, this is Rachel, as have been the past 4 posts.)

However, it is now CHRISTMAS BREAK! This is just the best thing ever. It means that I have watched movies, specifically the new movie-fied version of the musical Les Miserables!

Les Miserables

FIRST, (I need to get this out of the way so that my music-person soul doesn’t devour me) I was really disappointed by the singing. The exceptions to this rule were Colm Wilkinson (Bishop) briefly, Eddie Redmayne (Marius) always, Anne Hathaway (Fantine) sometimes, and Samantha Barks (Eponine) in one of her songs. Russel Crowe was better than I anticipated he would be, but my basis for comparison on the role of Javert is operatically trained baritones, the depth and warmth of whose intonation makes you want to weep when you hear them sing warm-ups. So he lost.

As for the rest, for some reason the presence of microphones and close-ups has made several people who should be able so sing for real forget that part of singing is carrying through a phrase. For those of you who are not super interested in the emotional ideas behind different techniques of singing, feel free to skip down to the bolded and underlined  word “SECOND.”

As for the rest of you: part of what makes singing work is that when sustaining a note you are not “holding” a note. It isn’t your thing that you hold onto until you are done playing with it. Rather, you keep your breath, and body, and emotions so completely open that the sound can continue without you getting in the way. What this means is that you “feel” an emotion for a note in a different way than if you were  to feel it normally. If you try to sing feelings exactly the way you feel them, somehow it becomes self-indulgent.When you are sad (I’m talking ugly-cry sad), you are not attempting to let others into your suffering.

WHY ME?!

WHY ME?!

That is why the tenseness, shaking, series of gasps, sighs, and hiccups make sense for that emotion in real life. However, if someone were to ugly-cry a note, while the audience might pity the performer,  it is almost impossible for the audience to enter into that emotion with the performer .  The point of singing is to feel things not for yourself, but in such a way as to allow other people to enter into that feeling.

This mini-treatise on singing effectively is mostly to say that the trick of “singing more naturally” or “with more rawness” that is allowed by microphones is actually terrible for conveying the original intent and emotion of the songs. Hugh Jackman, by sighing, cutting the lines off in weird places, and refusing to sustain notes that are meant to be powerful, open, and vulnerable seriously detracts from his performance. He refuses to let the audience in. What should be a painfully vulnerable moment shared with the audience becomes about Hugh Jackman and all of his feels. This is safer, less human, and  ultimately less interesting.

You can see this distinction between feeling for the audience and allowing the audience to share in the feeling by comparing any of Jackman’s songs to Eddie Redmayne’s performance of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables”. The openness, honesty and vulnerability is undeniable.

Now that I have had my little singing rant…

SECOND , this movie was so close to being faithful to considerations of Victor Hugo’s book… but they just couldn’t let it be.

Basically, the idea we are meant to examine is: How ought we, as human beings, to respond to “Les Miserables”-  the miserable ones? What is the right human response to suffering?  Hugo  (and the creators of the musical) give us a number of alternatives, and show us the fruits of each.

1.) Marius and Cosette: The Romantic Impulse

mariuscosette-4_3_r560

The Romantic Impulse, which sees nothing but the beloved and seeks to simply be away and happy is absolutely a response to human misery and suffering. It is the recognition of and desire to escape suffering. This is (quite simply) a young response to misery, and there is there is a certain validity to it. It is rooted in love, that much is certain. Yet, it also results in or requires a blindness to all but the beloved. As we see in Marius and Cosette at the end of the story (once they have matured and truly opened their eyes), both are left with the realization of how much they have benefitted by the sacrifice of others. Romantic love, while it can anesthetize us to the suffering of the world, does not actually make it go away. Sooner or later, we must grow into a deeper love that allows us to do more than escape suffering.

2.) The Thernardiers: Opportunism

Thernardiers

Oddly, this is likely the oldest human response to misery, and the hardest to eradicate. Actually, one of my favorite (and least favorite) aspects of Les Mis is that the Thernardiers keep showing up. They are like cockroaches after the bomb. Nothing kills them, and they always have a new way to take advantage of the suffering of others. Much as we may wish to ignore this aspect of humanity, Hugo does not allow us to. At the end, when idealism and justice are dead and real love is at best a miraculous memory, opportunism is alive and kicking. (Side Note: Helena Bonham-Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen were PERFECT for this!)

3.) Javert: Absolute Justice and Judgment (THE LAW)

Javert

Javert is the ubiquitous man-of-the-law. Oddly similar to Thernardiers, Javert is always there, but always in a new uniform. He is more than a legalistic man; he is The Law. He is Every Law. From jailer, to parole officer, to town constable, to Parisian officer – he is human law, which in every form aspires to divinity it its absoluteness. Except that he is also so human! When faced with suffering, misery, sin and squalor, we WANT to stand beside and become the law. The law seems safe.

My favorite parts of this movie were both of Javert’s major soliloquy songs. Both perfectly illustrate the problem of the “Absolute Judgment” approach. Each is performed with him walking along an impossibly high ledge looking out at a beautiful and cold view of a Paris night. The director, Tom Hooper, does a brilliant visual refrain in each song. As Javert sings about the perfect and unflinching justice of God, which casts men down even as He cast out Lucifer, Javert’s feet are shown teetering, barely staying on this impossibly high ledge.

Hugo uses the character of Javert illustrates the problem of perfect justice. As Javert realizes: we are imperfect. If the response to misery is justice untempered by mercy then at some point we will ALL fall. And so he does. Judgment is not enough, or rather it is too much. For a human being to attempt to maintain perfect justice is  ultimately suicidal.

4.) Enjorlas and the Students: Revolution

Enjolas

Hugo gives us yet another young approach to suffering. Revolution. The good intention is undeniable: make the world better for the oppressed poor. However, it is not an accident that when Hugo depicts this it is a failed revolution. These passionate young students whose idealism keeps them painfully awaiting the uprising of the poor whom they defend…. they die.

This is a problem. This is a young approach to suffering, like the Romantic impulse, because it also is predicated on a sort of blindness.  While the revolutionaries see all of the evil and weakness in the world in the oppressors, they are blind to the evil and weakness in the oppressed. The correct approach to human suffering cannot be blindness to its effects, or blindness to God in those who persecute. In order to respond rightly, we must see rightly every aspect and still love, give, and sacrifice – whether or not it is deserved.

This does not make the deaths of Enjorlas and the students less tragic. It does, however, make Hugo’s opinion on the Revolutionary approach to suffering more clear. Which brings us to….

5.) Jean Valjean, Fantine, Eponine, and the Bishop: Christian Charity and Self-Sacrifice

The essential differences between the students’ self-sacrifice for the people who never come, and Jean Valjean’s sacrifice and submission to Javert is this: the students EXPECT the people to rise, and they fight for that anticipated utopian ideal. Valjean expects nothing, except perhaps for follow after him and arrest him once he has been set free. Valjean performs his sacrifice with no notion of recompense. Every act of self-gift is a perfect and FREE gift. That is Christian charity.

This same charity is demonstrated in EACH of the characters listed above. I defy you to look at Fantine, Eponine, and Valjean and say that they are in any way blind to the misery that can exist in this world. Yet each gives their love unflinchingly.

Fantine, the abandoned, broken, prostitute gives her dignity, honor, and life for the future of her daughter.

I dreamed a dream... so different from this hell I'm living.

Eponine, the ill-parented, unloved young girl gives her friendship, her love and her life for the future happiness of a man who does not love her back.

I love him... but only on my own.

Valjean, the wrongly imprisoned,accursed, hunted convict gives his freedom, money, safety, future, EVERYTHING for everyone he meets.

valjean

They perfectly see the corruption and misery and suffering of the world. They live it. They do not expect it to wipe it away by their individual actions. They are not so proud. Nonethe less, they give love in perfect gift and humble hope, in participation with the love of God. This perfect sacrifice and gift is why these characters make a final appearance at the end of the stage musical. They are each permitted to sing in beautiful and heavenly harmony the moral of the story:

To love another person is to see the face of God.

 “To love another person is to see the face of God!”

This is my gripe: the movie makers could not let that moral stand. Even before the last note of that refrain finishes echoing in the Parisian chapel where it is set,  the camera zooms out to a heavenly…. BARRICADE?! On this utopian barricade that spans all Paris, the final refrain is given to the Revolutionaries, and the refrain becomes “Do you hear the people sing?”

 Having seen this musical before, somehow I have never minded the refrain of “Do You Hear the People Sing?” as the finale of the show. The ghostly revolutionaries standing and marching in the background of heaven has never bothered me until now. However, the visual jump in the movie from the chapel to heaven as a barricade struck me violently with the sense that they missed the point.

 The cinematographic decision to set that final song on a barricade  (US AGAINST THE WORLD!) completely undercuts that message. “To love another person is the see the face of God.” That emphasis on love as seeing rightly seems to me essential, and the revolutionaries do not see rightly. They fail to see God in their adversaries. They fail to see the effects of sin and suffering in their compatriots. I absolutely believe that Victor Hugo issues a call to action. However, that action is not to battle. It is to Love – to see the face of God in other people. 

This is what makes Valjean the hero: he sees God even and especially in his persecutors. If that ain’t an attempt to be like Christ, I don’t know what is.  

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Brave (Part 2) or “How Pixar Broadened the Perspective of a Disney Princess Movie”

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Oh dear. Remember that time I promised two part blog post on Pixar’s Brave, and then left the country half-way through? Yeah. That was embarrassing. Without further ado, let me get this sucker out of the way so that I can get going with my many anxiety-ridden teacher posts (Get excited people. It’s gonna be fun. Or terrible.)

 LENS #2: Brave as a Disney Princess Movie
Do not get me wrong. I love Disney Princess movies as much as the next 23-year old who secretly is convinced that, if she tries hard enough, she too can marry a courageous, singing, dancing, decent man who also just happens to be a prince. However, they also teach their young audience some really problematic habits of thought, which I am convinced manifest in the teenage years.

Like noogies.

Indeed, in comparison to Disney Princess movies, Brave has a remarkably level head and care for the formation that it performs.
1.) Brave vs. Little Mermaid: “How to Depict Teenagers”
If you are reading this blog, you may be under the apprehension that I pay way too much attention to the thought patterns and behavior of teenagers. To that, I say: No Kidding.As such I am constantly annoyed by the media/Disney/Twilight versions of Teenagers. I am convinced that they have encouraged the idea ALL Teenagers are ONLY misunderstood, whiny, little angst buckets. How? By glorifying the whining, the angsting, and the self-righteousness, and cultivating that same self-centeredness in younger and younger children.
Take Ariel of The Little Mermaid fame:
Despite the fact that her frame seems to be that of an anorexic 12-year-old, she is the quintessential 16-year old. She whines. She disobeys her father. She preaches. She throws away her relationship or chances of seeing her family  EVER AGAIN for the chance of being with a guy WITH WHOM SHE HAS NEVER SPOKEN.

Angst bucket…  OK, she is also spirited, adventurous, funny, and exceptionally talented. And has awesome hair. Is that a fair assessment of Angsty – I mean, Ariel?

Now, up to this point, I can point out a whole lot of similarities with  Merida. In fact, aside from the obsessive romantic behavior, Merida is an Ariel knock-off. She even has the gravity defying red hair. (So.Much.Envy.) The big difference comes in how we, as audience, are asked to view the respective princesses in relation to their parents.
With Ariel, the entire plot is set up as a spirited Ariel rebelling against an over-protective father to the point where she makes one teensy HORRIBLE decision, but then her father learns his lesson, saves her, and she gets the happy ending exactly as she wanted it. From the start, we are encouraged to see Triton in one of two ways. At best he is too strict and perpetually scolding her for silly things like being late:

So. Unfair.

At worst he is cruel, destructive of his daughter’s most prized possessions, full of fear, bigoted, and willing to let humans DIE. 

Triton: Is it true you rescued a human from drowning?
Ariel: Daddy, I had to…
Triton: Contact between the human world and the mer world is strictly forbidden. Ariel, you know that! Everyone knows that.
Ariel: He would have died.
Triton: One less human to worry about!
Ariel: You don’t even know him.
Triton: Know him? I don’t have to know him, they’re all the same! Spineless, savage, harpooning fish-eaters, incapable of any feeling of…

Her crucial decision to make a deal with a witch – sacrificing her voice, family, and everything she has known for the sake of a random guy to whom she has never spoken- is depicted as a direct result of Triton being a jerk. In a plot that takes its moral center exclusively from her first-person perspective, it damned near impossible to watch that scene and not think that her father is the villain. Sure, later we get to see him  sacrifice his triton, his kingdom, and his life to save his daughter and her boyfriend (I cry every time.) But even this is depicted as Triton realizing his mistake and acquiescing to the superiority of Ariel’s world view.

So what does this tell us? It tells us that to achieve a happy ending, teenagers should ignore parents’ rules because rules are just regimented bigotry and fear. It tells us that teenaged bad decisions are really their parents’ fault. It tells us that the teenager’s perspective is the only one worth examining. And finally,  it tells us that teenagers are whiny, rebellious, preachy, and impetuous because they are mostly right
HOW IS BRAVE DIFFERENT?
As I mentioned, Merida of the Awesome Hair (as she shall henceforth be known), is very similar to Ariel. Heck, she too follows mystical creatures that lead her to the lair of a witch, with whom she makes make a terrible deal, in which she sacrifices her family and everything she has known, directly after a knock-down-drag-out fight with her main parental figure involving destruction of highly symbolic property. Sound familiar?
Indeed, if Ariel is the quintessential teenager, then Merida is the caricature of teenager.
Merida is spirited and awesome.  She is also anachronistically obnoxious in her teenager-ness. She actually says the words: “You were never there for me!” …
Who’s a little pouty angst bucket?
YOU ARE!
However, the big difference, is the comparison of how Merida and her mother, Queen Elinor, have been introduced to us up to this point.
Where as in Little Mermaid, Triton’s fears are bigoted and centered on humans, who pose no real danger to his daughter, in Brave, we have been shown that Elinor’s fears are justified. By showing us countless scenes to which Merida is not party, we know about the very real political dangers to this kingdom. We know that Elinor’s first major action of the movie was to protect her tiny daughter from a giant scary demon bear.  We know about the conversations Elinor has had with her husband about what is best for their kingdom and for Merida. So, when Elinor looks worried or lectures Merida on responsibilities, we know that there is probably a really good reason. 
Secondly, BOTH Merida and her mother are guilty of the property destruction. In Little Mermaid, only Triton is the big destructive statue smashing jerk. In Brave, Queen Elinor throws Merida’s bow and arrows into the fire in frustration only after Merida has cruelly sliced a gash in the tapestry of their family, which we have seen Elinor carefully work over as she attempts to figure out what is best for her daughter and her kingdom. There is no one totally innocent party here.

Finally, when we see Merida run off into the woods, Pixar (Notice how I attribute all things that I like to Pixar and everything that I don’t to Disney? Yeah. I’m fair like that.) does not simply cut away from Elinor and follow the fuming teenager. Instead, we first see Elinor collapse to the floor with the guilt of having lost her temper and destroyed something that her daughter loved. Then, we see Merida fume and blame her mother for everything. 

Throughout the movie, Pixar encourages us to maintain multiple perspectives, in time and in characters. Both Merida and Elinor have merit. Both Elinor and Merida falter and learn. If both Elinor and Merida have failed in some way, we are not given a clear cut idealistic emblem of how to act and how to view the world. Moreover, we are able to better see both the strengths and weaknesses of both characters. We can like Merida and her spirit without taking her as the absolute guide for behavior. We can see the love Elinor has for her family and respect her diplomacy and poise. We can praise teenagers for their spirit and ideals without having to admit defeat to their tendencies of selfishness, impetuosity, and angst.

PIXAR SUCCESS #1!

2.) Brave vs. Tangled: “How to Present Mother-Daughter Relationships”
Let me just say, by the way, that I freaking LOVE Tangled. Nevertheless, I am troubled by the Mother- Daughter relationship.
Ok, I know that Mother Gothel is not actually Rapunzel’s mother. So, I suppose that you could say that the super unhealthy relationship between them doesn’t count. However, when the Evil witch’s main solo is “Mother Knows Best,” I feel pretty justified in reading this relationship as parallel to Elinor and Merida.
First, let’s look at the stated reasons for why Mother Gothel doesn’t want Rapunzel to leave the tower.
In what is essentially a curfew debate, the writers have taken very good reasons for  a young naive girl to be careful – thieves, dangerous people, etc. – and placed them in the context of literally making Rapunzel scared of the dark.  Once Rapunzel is actually out in the world, the only people who are actually as scary as the people Mother Gothel has described are the men that she has hired to kidnap, terrify, and steal from her daughter. This is a typical mother-daughter relationship apparently: fear, manipulation, and ego stroking.
Now let’s look at Brave. Sure, there is tension. OODLES OF TENSION!
Yet, from the very first encounter, the writers seem determined that we not think of this Mother-and-Teenaged-Daughter in a vacuum. Over and over, they cut to flashbacks of Elinor and Merida’s early relationship. Over and over, they give us flashbacks of Elinor obviously loving, protecting, and fostering her daughter.

DAW!!!

Therefore, Pixar again allows and encourages us to maintain a broader perspective. Just as we are not allowed to take Merida’s point of view as dogmatic and infallible, we are not allowed to take her teenaged tension as the only important time period.
By this repeated emphasis on broadened perspective, Pixar is teaching real empathy and compassion.
PIXAR SUCCESS #2!
3. ) Brave vs. Mulan: “How to Present Traditionally Feminine Activities”
Finally, I will turn to a little one of my personal soap-boxes. (I did warn y’all that I have a ludicrous number of opinions.. right?) In the insistence on female equality, there seems to be the question of how feminine equality is to be attained. Unfortunately, somewhere in the debate, I think that general opinion leaned toward the idea the power of women must be made manifest in doing the same stuff as men, only better.
For instance, in Mulan, the critical moment for Mulan’s story arch is her decision to mask her femininity and to literally become a man – a soldier who saves her country to be precise.

Let’s get down to business!
I’ll Make a Man out of You

However, again, think that by this decision, there is the implicit judgment that traditionally feminine virtues are somehow frivolous and inferior. Which, in and of itself, is a type of sexism. If, in order to become equal to or better than the men in the army, she must set aside the weak, silly feminine things like make-up, marriage, etc., then there is the judgment that masculine things are inherently better and something to which women have been denied access.
That bothers me. Ok, sure, at the end she actually saves the country by dressing like a woman and getting her male army buddies to do the same. However, the emphasis here is not on feminine virtues but on the the sight gag of the three men flirting their way into a palace.
Women’s clothes, virtues, and interests are still silly. Alternately, the male virtues, as better manifest by Mulan – virtues like courage, physical strength, combative skill, etc- are  glorified.
So, what of Brave? Merida’s major skill set is definitely traditionally masculine. She shoots. She fights. She rides. She steps up to win her own hand in marriage.

Definitely not the docile type.

And yet none of that bothers me. “Why?” you might ask. It does not bother me because of the ending.
*** Spoilers!***
At the end of the story, there are two critical moments for each of the main characters, Elinor and Merida. Each must acknowledge and embrace the virtues and value of the other. 
(I will focus more on Merida, but would be happy to talk about Elinor’s moments if you are interested.)
1.) Merida makes the semi-self-sacrificial and diplomatic decision to pacify the warring clans, even at the expense of her own freedom. (Granted, Elinor gives her and out, but still.) The essential gesture lies in her unconscious mimicry of the dignity, eloquence, and diplomacy that we have previously seem demonstrated by Elinor.
2.) More importantly, Merida only breaks the spell on her mother by an undeniably feminine action. She sews. In order to “Mend the bod torn by pride” as required by the spell, Merida literally uses the skills taught her by her mother to sew and mend the gash that she cut in the tapestry in the initial fight.

‘Fate be changed, look inside. Mend the bond torn by pride.’

In no uncertain terms, by resolving the story with this sharing of perspective and giving proper respect to typically feminine actions, Pixar again insists on a broader perspective. As a result, the ending shot and beautiful picture of Elinor and Merida’s more adult relationship of mutual respect is genuinely beautiful.

DAWWWWW!

PIXAR SUCCESS #3!
Actually, I think that this might be the most practically helpful-to-teenagers messages I have ever encountered in a movie:
(1) Take a step back.
(2) Remember that the person you are fighting with now has likely spent the better part of the last two decades sacrificing for you, protecting you, fostering your gifts, and generally trying to make your life the best that it can possibly be.
(3) Remember that just as you are hurt by your parents’ actions or your friends’ actions, they have likely been hurt by yours.
(4) Remember that your perspective is not the only one and that your virtues are not the only virtues of merit.
(5) Remember that growing-up is not  asserting your will and freedom over everyone else. It is the process of learning sacrifice, empathy, and perspective.
P.S. I just have to throw in that I freaking love Elinor so much. In every possible beautiful, protective, maternal form that she takes. (I am really not trying to spoil EVERYTHING!) And so I really needed to include a picture.

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Brave (part 1) or “Why Brave is a Sub-Par Pixar Movie”

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Alright, so I went to see Disney- Pixar’s Brave. I am of two minds. In fact, I think there are two ways of looking at this movie. SO I am going to split this post in half, and the halves are still going to be long. Warning: the first post is going to make it sound like I mostly didn’t like this movie. Please wait until he second half to be mad at me. That said, feel free to be mad! 😉 So, without further ado:

LENS #1: Brave as a Pixar movie, which has been invaded by Disney.

 In that case, compared to all the Pixar movies that have gone before (including the CHARMING “La Luna” animated short that preceded it) it was a serious disappointment. While it was undeniably beautiful, it lacked the understated charm and refinement of focus that gives the Pixar canon up to this point such a unified feel.

Actually, the easiest way to assess through this lens is to compare with it other Pixar movies.

1.) Brave vs. Toy Story 2: How to Approach BIG QUESTIONS and IDEAS / Children’s Movies as LITERATURE.

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One of my favorite Professors at UD – actually, Dr. Roper (Happy Coincidence!) – has a beautiful talk on Toy Story 2. He claims (and I totally believe) that it engages the same question as the Iliad. Namely: ought we to live a short, glorious life or to live a long life, without having necessarily fulfilled our greatest and most glorious potential?

Sure, for Achilles, that glory is one of battle which will result in his death, and for Woody that glory is one being truly loved and played with by one child who will eventually out grow him, but the premise stands. Woody’s choice (and Achilles’ for that matter) is ultimately that short and glorious life. However, in the character of Jesse, the cowgirl doll, and the story she tells Woody to persuade him, the creators of Toy Story 2, simply and honestly illustrate an argument for each side of the choice. I promise I won’t include a million videos in my posts, but this one is SO PERFECT.

(I defy you not to tear up a little. It’s OK. Tom Hanks did when he first saw it.)

Contained in this less-than-3-minute-clip, Pixar illustrated both the Joy of the shorter life and the anguish of abandonment and virtual death that we as human beings (and Woody, as a human … Toy?) reasonably fear. On the basis of Jesse’s story, for a time, Woody chooses the longer and less loved existence held behind a pane of glass in a Toy Museum. However, it is with an allusion to this story and Jesse’s love for her child, Emily, that Woody ultimately makes his choice to return to Andy and that short and glorious life. (Much as Achilles does…OK, I am not going to get into that, but he does. Just ask Dr. Roper, Ok?)

Here, Pixar has engaged A HUGE IDEA. Through Toys. Without a single speck of narration. They did so by treating this humble children’s animated movie as a piece of literature.  Not with grandiose or moralistic assertions, but rather by trusting the small, the particular, the human, the STORY to convey and open human experience for consideration better than any treatise could.

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Now, let’s look at Brave. It opens right off the bat with a narration that talks vaguely about (in no particular order) Destiny, Bravery, and Changing Your Fate. So, I kind of expected, as a Pixar movie, that the story would in some way be about any of those things. It was not.

To be fair, it really did try to be. It had the Queen assert that these random floaty blue Wilo-the-Wisp things that lead Merida, the Princess main character, around on her adventures “lead you to your Destiny.” Except that they don’t. Instead, they serve as a pretty thin plot device to makes Merida do stuff so that she doesn’t just sit around whining about how life is unfair. By this account, Destiny is pretty much “any stuff that happens to you or you do.” I mean… I guess maybe it is. But in that case, talking about it is a little pointless.

The story itself is not really about changing fate. In fact, the entire idea of the story, characters, and nuances of design speaking for themselves to convey big ideas – GONE.

Granted, with most children’s movies I don’t expect them to do justice to the notion of Fate. I mean,  really….That is Sophocles/Oedipus/Greek Tragedy level literature and consideration. Kids can’t handle that… right? Except that Pixar has set a precedent of successfully considering in an age-appropriate way EXACTLY that level of question. 

Disappointment #1.

2.) Brave vs. Wall-E: How to Convey the Theme of a Movie

A- flipping-DORABLE

Remember Wall-E? Remember that time Pixar made movie that was maybe 10% dialogue, with that opening 40 MINUTE sequence with NO WORDS, which still was a story about caring for the planet, love, the dangers of laziness and self-absorption,  and the triumph of the Human Spirit (as represented by a crazily human robot)? OH, ALSO, the credit sequence that was about the progression and nature of Art? Remember that? That was AWESOME!

If I could I would totally post a video of the whole movie of Wall-E. It does not need narration because the themes, and art, and ideas, and design, and voices, and characters, and EVERYTHING is so tight and so unified and so Elegant. There is not a single character or scene that does not add to the texture and movement of the story. Therfore, I won’t muddy by my description what they showed so well.

Now, let’s look at Brave.

GORGEOUS. Undeniably gorgeous. As is the entire movie.

The design is beautiful. But it is not elegant. 

Perhaps I should define elegance as I see it: a refinement and unity of purpose and design. (Think Occam’s Razor only prettier!). Brave, though lovely, has no such unity. My big case-in-point is actually a fairly important plot point. Merida is throwing a hissy-fit because she has to marry one of the first-born of the Scottish clans of her kingdom in order to maintain the balance and unity of the kingdom. And NOBODY IS THERE FOR HER! GASP! Anyways, she goes out into the wood and meets a random witch who can give her a magical cupcake that will “Change her Destiny!” (except it doesn’t).

 In this situation, the design and story team has two elegant choices: (1) EVIL Witch, who maliciously attempts to destabilize the kingdom by playing on the whiny whims of a teenager. (2) FUNNY Witch, who is really good-hearted, but wants Merida to learn a lesson. 

OR

 The director (who I am here imagining as a really oblivious Disney exec) could insist that the witch be funny and generally likable, but that the ambiance around her and the underscoring and music, be UBER CREEPY AND SINISTER.

Guess which one they chose? I spent that entire chunk of the movie wondering what I was supposed to think about this woman who causes so many problems, is super funny, but super creepy, and also disappears leaving cryptic instructions for how Merida can fix the situation. So, I suppose that is why the Director (ahemDisneyExecahem) relied so heavily on narration: because that is the only way to understand what they wanted you to know.

Disappointment #2.

3.) Brave vs. The Incredibles: How to Portray Male Characters

I love The Incredibles. I mean, I really LOVE The Incredibles. I will spend the $10 to go see it again when and if is rereleased into theaters in 3D. Even though I hate 3D.

Basically my favorite thing is its portrayal of the family, and specifically the dynamic between Mr. and Mrs. Incredible.

Let’s start with the obvious: both of these characters are strong, brave, and impressive.

I mean COME ON THEY ARE SUPERHEROES.

However, they have different strengths and approaches, both of which are essential. To me, nothing illustrates their complementary strengths so well as one of the last scenes. The bad guy, Syndrome, is attempting to kidnap their baby, Jack, but accidentally drops him from the door of a jet. Instantly, Mrs. Incredible turns to Mr. Incredible and says “THROW ME!” Without hesitating or doubting her for a moment, he picks her up with his super strength, and lobs her bodily at their falling baby. She in turn cradles baby Jack, flexibly becomes a parachute and carries him to safety. Without his strength and trust, and her flexibility and colossal maternal love, they could not have saved jack. There is not a “Secret Ruler” in the house-hold. Neither is subservient. They are partners.

Now, in the first scene of Brave, I had hopes that the Pixar sense of complementary equality would prevail.

See. Aren’t they cute in their matching thrones?

We are introduced to the royal family, with a tiny  (ADORABLE) Merida accidentally leading a huge, scary demon bear back to the site of the family picnic. Instantly, both parents spring into action. The Queen bodily shields Merida, then carries her to safety, trusting her husband to protect them. And he does. He does battle with a HUGE BEAR, successful protecting his wife, daughter and kingdom, sacrificing his leg in the process. These are equal parents who love their daughter, and use their strengths to protect her. AWESOME! Hurray for paternal affection and Bad-Assery!

Yet, as soon as we get to the time period when Merida is of marriageable age, though the King is still loving, something has changed. The King, the ;ords of the other clans, their sons, the general male mass of clans- all are suddenly morons.

Funny-looking? Yes.
Morons? OH EVEN YESSER!

OK, maybe not quite morons. But certainly violent, boastful, crass, incapable of finding solutions to problems, constantly drunk, and well… kind of stupid. I think that the purpose of this male descent into stupid is basically to say by comparison, “Look, how poised, powerful, wise, and wonderful the Queen is!”

Don’t get me wrong. I am all in favor of a wise and wonderful Queen, and a loving and occasionally indulgent King. But I cannot get behind the idea that this dumbing down of one gender does anything positive for the other. It is a strange habit of modern thought that men, specifically fathers, must either be strict and ultimately proven wrong, or be loving only by being over-indulgent.

I cannot speak for all father-daughter relationships, but I can speak about my own. Frustrating though it was, I can generally say that my father’s strictest injunctions and most frustrating rules were his most loving. And not in a “He is doing this really dumb thing because he loves you but is misguided” way. In a “You don’t know it yet, but this is an essential rule to protect you” way.

Pixar knows better. They know how to make whole male characters with flaws without making them caricatures of the lowest common denominator of their gender.

This is a human man, quietly suffering for his attempts to use his strengths for others.

This is the same man when allowed to use that strength.

Mr. Incredible is far from perfect. He is a very human man.He is occasionally vain, easily frustrated, shouts too much, and has a mid-life crisis.  But those flaws are not what define him, they are simply part of a very human personality – one which also includes his heartbreaking love for his wife and children, his courage, his strength, his wry sense of humor, and his persistent efforts to help people whenever he can regardless of how much it will hurt him. And that strength does nothing to diminish the strength and awesomeness of his wife.

Disappointment #3.

So as a Pixar movie, Brave was sub-par. That said tune in for Part 2, because as a Disney Princess movie, Brave rocked by comparison. SURPRISE!!! 

MOVIE THOUGHTS: Snow White and the Huntsman

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Blogging scares me a little bit. (That is my real reason for making Teresa do most of the introductory post… and material… and designing. I am a chicken. Who is named Rachel. In case you couldn’t tell.) That said, I have about a million too may opinions to be shared in polite conversations without seeming like a total narcissist. Which I am not. I think.

With that stunning introduction, let’s turn to what I actual want to talk about 90% of the time: MOVIES.

Today’s movie is Snow White and the Huntsman.  I am warning you: (1) This will contain spoilers. (2) This will not be a review. I can do that in about a sentence: This is a B movie that should have been an A movie based on Charlize Theron, Chris Hemsworth, the design decisions, and the screenplay which, I swear, had a clear and good thesis. If only they had cast a lead actress who was made of something other than cardboard. Cardboard that sighs and bites her lower lip a lot.

Seriously. She apparently can not find a new facial expression even when a major character dies… Did I mention that there’d be spoilers?

On to the thesis: the FUN PART! At first I was going to claim that the thesis in this movie was probably an accident because, seriously when was the last time you heard of a big budget Hollywood movie, starring Kristen Stewart having not only a moral but also a reasonable thesis driving it? That’s right – NEVER.  (Do not argue this point with me. My pop culture knowledge rivals the most rabid of twelve-year-old girls.  And I will use it to punch you in the face.) However,  I went on a mad imdb spree, and after seeing that the screenwriters are also responsible for Slumdog Millionaire and The Blind Side, I feel no need to apologize for my rampant over-analysis. These guys are good.

The basic question that Snow White engages is the nature of Beauty. (Beauty is a transcendental so I can capitalize it, right?) Rather, it provides a comparison of two rival concepts of Beauty. Unsurprisingly, one is Snow White and the other is the Evil Queen. (Guess which one is the bad concept?)

Because I like Charlize Theron better, let’s start with the Evil Queen’s Beauty. In no uncertain terms, she defines Beauty as power. It is power taken at the expense of others (she drinks the blood of virgin’s for a pick me up), and it is power to be used against all those who threaten her.

That much, though somewhat rare in Hollywood, would not be unsurprising. But I love that they take it further. They show, through flash backs, that her obsession with Beauty is not mere crazy-lady. When her village is invaded as a child her mother casts a spell on her saying Beauty is her power, and that it is bound by her blood – the fairest blood. “By fairest blood is this done. By fairest blood can it be undone.” (Gosh I love the Fairytale genius for making abstract things extra concrete! Beauty is like power? NO! THE BLOOD OF THE BEAUTIFUL IS THE SOURCE OF POWER!) So, when the Evil Queen runs around obsessed with the fact that Snow White is prettier than she is, it is because her power (magical and political) is bound to her status as the “Fairest of Them All.”

And she is not wrong in her belief that Beauty can protect her and conquer those around her. She survives, and goes on to conquer kingdoms. Beauty absolutely can be viewed and used in this way. Beauty can be a dominating power.

However, in the other corner stands Snow White. (Ignore the lip-biting, if you can. She really is better as a quiet  allegorical figure anyway.) Her “Beauty equals [insert brief descriptor here]” is a littler harder. Basically, Snow White’s Beauty is Purity, and Morality, and Spirit, and Life, and Inspiration.  (Sorry for all the capitalizations.)

Enter the first thing that surprised me about this movie: when they say Snow White’s Beauty is rooted in her purity, morality, and spirit, I was mostly expecting her to wear a lot of white, and then go all “CHICK POWER! YEAH!” at the end of the movie.

Tell me that when you look at this picture you don’t think, “Chick in armor, hmm? You know I bet she is overcoming some oppressive patriarchal system, and probably kicking butt to a degree that is highly improbable considering her diminutive stature.”

BUT THEY DON”T DO THAT! Instead, we first encounter the adult and long-imprisoned Snow White in her fairytale tower, and she is praying. And not some vague prayer to a random higher power or nature or something like that. She is praying the Lord’s Prayer.

How did the screenwriter’s slip that in?! Then her first kick-ass action is not an arbitrary thing, but the defense of her virginity as the uber-creepy brother of the Evil Queen attempts to molest her. Then she escapes the castle and heads off into the visually awesome dark forest. However, In the first 10 minutes of meeting this character, we have seen that her spirit is directed by her faith and her purity. That is a concept of Beauty I can  get behind! 

Once she is in the wild, she must be retrieved by the titular Huntsman.

Despite the evidence of Thor, this dude can act. Also he is pretty. But seriously.

His backstory is lovely. Evil Queen gets him out into the forest searching for Snow White by channeling his drunken grief at the death and loss of his wife into the  desperate hope that she can be brought back to life if he kills Snow White.

Their first encounter int he forest is the first time we see the power of Snow White’s Beauty. Upon seeing her in all her innocent Beauty, the huntsman is finally able to break free of his self-destructive grief. He rises from it to help her. Snow White demonstrates Beauty’s true power and genius – to call to the better nature of Man. (In this case a specific man, but the paradigm also holds true for Man in the sense of Mankind.)

This becomes more explicit later, but I don’t want to spoil the entire movie… just most of it. Oh well, I did warn you. Suffice it to say, the climactic True Love’s Kiss is not actually between Snow White and the prince (who is quite lovely, but COME ON!… LOOK AT THE TITLE OF THE MOVIE!).  When Snow White is woken with True Love’s Kiss, it is the farthest thing from the romantic love triangle fiascos we have come to associate with Kristen Stewart. Rather than the BIG JEALOUS MOMENT of “Who gets to kiss her?!” between the two men, there is the shared grief at her loss. Neither man loves her in order to acquire her. Rather both seek to protect and honor her. The actual kiss preceded by a beautiful and quiet speech to the effect of: “You deserved better. I wanted to be better for you.”

The two men have a shared understanding and love for who and what she is. She is Pure. She is Courageous. She is Good. She is Beautiful. Therefore, she is to be protected.

None of which is to say that she is passive. This same understanding of her Beauty, Purity, Goodness and Courage,  that inspires such protective instincts also also inspires the small army of men to reclaim her kingdom and fight for good. She rouses the army. She rides in front of them calling them to greatness.  She vanquishes the Queen. She is powerful. But this is not a Chick Power movie.

When I say that   I do not mean to undercut her strength. Rather, I mean to praise this movie, which so elevates the power and genius of feminine Beauty, not doing so at the expense of the men. The Prince is good, loyal and brave. The Huntsman is no less so. They each have their role to play, neither of which involves a tug-of-war over her. They are too busy with actual manly offices: protecting Snow White, teaching her how to protect herself when absolutely necessary, fighting for the restoration of a good state, battling (literally) against EVIL. The gifts and actions of these men have no less dignity than those of Snow White.

Basically, by correctly illustrating the actual rivalry between “Beauty as Power” and “Beauty as Powerful Inspiration”, the screen writers addressed the actual problem that seems to motivate all of the “Chick Power, Yeah!” movies – a mis-identified rivalry between men and women (and between women and women) that need not exist.

If you view life as the Evil Queen does – a battle in which you are constantly being attacked by a male-dominated system, and threatened by the beauty of the women around you – men become enemies and tools, women become rivals. We see this in Theron’s Evil Queen. She is powerful, terrifying, and profoundly lonely in her constant rivalry with all men and all beautiful women.

However, if you view life as Snow White does – a world full of Beauty, created by a loving God, full of creatures and people who are capable of great things –  men and women, through very different aptitudes and actions, can jointly work toward the betterment of their own souls and the world around them.

Also, by giving us a sympathetic portrayal of the terror and isolation of both the Queen’s and Snow White’s childhoods, the screen writers illustrate that these views are not merely the result of environment. Both women are beautiful. Both women have a childhood full of terror and isolation. Both women choose how to view the world around them, and so must we all.

Jeepers that was a long post. Basically, you should see the movie. But if you don’t want to, you should at least listen to this Florence + the Machine song from the credits. BECAUSE IT IS AWESOME!!!