Friday, December 31, 2010

Toy Story 3

I would have thought that the Toy Story (2010; dir. Lee Unkich) narrative had exhausted itself. But, even though Toy Story 3 is really just a further embellishment on Toy Story 2, which showed toys worried about being forgotten by their owner, this third and presumably final installment is entertaining and, forgive my use of the word, heartwarming. The animation is so good that you don’t even think about it. Instead you focus on the characters, all of whom have distinct personalities. Toy Story 3 shows us how the toys approach the day when their owner leaves home for college. Will they be thrown out with the garbage? Will they be relegated to the attic? What fate awaits them?

My suspicion is that this film is designed more for the parents of children who play with toys than for the children. It hit a sensitive spot of mine with its focus on the boy about to leave home and childhood behind. Several scenes seem aimed directly at adults. A sequence in a daycare center is full of dark humor and satire. The toys in the center are terrorized by the younger children.  A stuffed bear that smells of strawberries and his capo, a one-eyed plastic baby doll, keep the other inmate toys in a state of fear and submission.  It’s a gulag for toys.  Any parent who ever felt pangs of guilt for leaving a child at a daycare center will find much of interest here. The most intense scene, which takes place in an incinerator at the city dump, is too strong and terrifying for young children.

In this fantasy, you don’t question the logic or sense of what happens. You just get to sit back and enjoy.

The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia

What we have in The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia (dir. Julian Nitzberg, 2009) is exploitative cultural voyeurism. This documentary about a family of self-avowed hillbillies and outlaws in the mountains of West Virginia is a follow-up to a movie of about two decades ago called The Dancing Outlaw (1991) in which Jessco White talks about himself and his life. In the tradition of his father he dances to mountain music. His personality alternates from that of a jokester to an Elvis imitator to a vicious and violent and dangerous person. He’s a self-conceived outlaw and rebel. This new film takes up where the other left off and moves forward about 20 years.

While The Dancing Outlaw focused primarily on Jessco and his immediate family, The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia focuses on the extended family, starting with the two grandparents and moving on down the lineage of three White generations of alcohol and drug abuse, violence, crime, and murder. In one scene Jessco walks through the town graveyard pointing out the tombstones of various family members including his sisters, both of whom died violently, one murdered by a former boyfriend, the other dead in an automobile accident. His father D. Ray was shot to death in a family squabble. The family tree is pockmarked with violent deaths. The film moves systematically through the family tree as sisters and brothers, nieces and nephews, sons and daughters tell about their lives, their sins and crimes, and personal problems. For the most part the film allows the various members of the White family to tell their own stories and they talk without apparent self-consciousness about what kinds of drugs they like, the trouble they’ve been in, the prison sentences they've served, their attitudes towards the law, towards each other, towards the people they dislike, towards the people they want to kill.

What's the point? The film never pauses to consider why the White family is like it is. We hear speculation from a couple of lawyers in town that the White family has been isolated in the hills of West Virginia for generations, that their isolation and ignorance have made them who they are. But that's the only kind of explanation we hear. The film doesn’t ask us to think about why. It just offers the spectacle of the Whites droning on about their sins, their misery, their addictions, their self-abuse, their despair and their indifference to their condition. This film is a form of voyeurism. It's cultural voyeurism. From a superior standpoint the audience of this film is invited to gape at the ` family and to laugh.

Producers Johnny Knoxville and Johnny Tremaine are part of the team responsible for the Jackass television series, and the Jackass films. They play the Whites for laughs. They rejoice in the scenes they portray—for example, of a young mother who has just given birth snorting pills with another family member in her hospital room. Only occasionally, through the words of the White family members themselves, do we feel empathy, pity, sorrow for them—the woman who enters rehab when she loses her infant child to the county protection agency, the young man sentenced to 25 years in jail, the hopelessness and helplessness and indifference they all seem to feel. The woman in rehab, and the brother of Jessco who moves to Wisconsin to try to escape the White legacy, are among the few in the film who even try to break away from the family and its self-propelled momentum towards doom and defeat.

Throughout the film when the Whites talk and act out they know they are being filmed. The film itself is a self-fulfilling prophecy—intended to show the misbehaving antics of the White family, it encourages the Whites to make good on the image.

Alice in Wonderland

Late in his article on Hollywood’s gutting of children’s classic literature, Sam Adams expresses displeasure with Tim Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland (2010). He accuses director Tim Burton of turning the novel into a “tepid Joseph Campbell myth.”[1] I disagree. Tepid the film is not, and though one may detect the presence of Campbell and Jung and others, they are not a distraction. Reviews of Burton’s Alice were mixed. I found it an ingenious, visually creative, and fairly entertaining jaunt into an overworked narrative. I don’t think that many people have actually read Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. I think many people like the idea of Alice more than the book itself. And their readings of the book are largely filtered through various Hollywood adaptations over the years, along with watered down and simplified children’s versions of the story.

Burton weaves many of the elements of the original novel into a new tale, wherein Alice, now a young woman, falls into the rabbit hole a second time, just after a fairly uninteresting Lord has proposed. She can’t remember having visited “Wonderland” before, but she has dreamt about it since early childhood, never sure of where the dream is coming from. She even wonders if she is going mad.

In Burton’s film, Alice is the daughter of a brilliant thinker who dies shortly before the film begins. Her mother is worried for her daughter and through various means unexplained arranges for a marriage to a relative. Alice is a strange character—her face is pasty white, she is clumsy, she doesn’t feel naturally drawn towards the rigidly prescribed social patterns for a Victorian woman of her age--marriage and subordination to a man’s will. She doesn’t really know what she wants, or who she is. When she falls down the rabbit hole a second time, she begins to learn the answers.

She is greeted by many of the characters from Carroll’s novel—the creepy twins Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the caterpillar, the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat. The Red Queen still reigns as a ruthless tyrant who orders the lopping off of her subjects’ heads at any whim.

In this film, the characters from the novel remember Alice from her first visit to Wonderland, but are not sure they recognize this newly grown Alice. Part of the thrust of the film is for Alice to discover who she is, to convince others and herself of who she is. The Wonderland narrative then becomes a struggle between the fate Alice is supposed to fulfill—that of slaying the Jabberwocky and defeating the Red Queen. She is convinced she can’t play this role; others are convinced she can, and others just don’t know.

Visually this film is interesting and off-kilter, in exactly the way you would expect a Tim Burton film to be. Burton seems especially fond of showing the out of proportion sizes of various characters, as well as the large head and coiffure of the Red Queen. Alice becomes an increasingly engaging character as the film progresses, and the narrative gradually congeals and gains force (there are some dead spots).

Alice is about a young woman’s search for self-definition (individuation, to use C. G. Jung’s term), her struggle to know whether she should conform to social expectations or to go her own way. I enjoyed it. It is hardly unusual that a young woman on the verge of adulthood and independent life would be trying to decide who she is and what road to follow—building this version of Alice around that search is hardly an artificial imposition.

Johnny Depp was especially good as the Mad Hatter, who plays a major role in the film. The voice of Alan Rickman (known to many as Severus Snape) is just right as the blue caterpillar. Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen brings more vigor to the story than anyone else in the film. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen seems congested and without effect. Mia Wasikowska does a fine job as Alice. I don’t think this film would work for young children, but for young adults and adults in general who enjoy narratives that run away from their sources yet at the same time pay them vigorous homage, it may work well.


The Evolution of God, by Robin Wright

The Evolution of God by Robin Wright (Little, Brown and Company, 2009) considers how religions developed in the western world. Its main focus is Abrahamic religions, those that claim the Old Testament figure Abraham in some sense as a founding ancestral figure. This means Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Wright suggests how the idea of a god or gods developed over thousands of years as humans evolved culturally. He marks the emergence of tribes and nation-states as the starting point for the modern religions we know today.

Wright suggests that the concept of God—Yahweh, Jehovah, the Lord, Allah—developed in response to the social, cultural, and political environment in the Middle East. Three thousand years ago the Middle East consisted of tribes and states that believed in an array of gods. They were polytheists. Some gods they believed were more powerful than others. Some groups prayed to their own deities, but also acknowledged the existence of other gods.

Gradually, by the first millennium BCE, for the Hebrews the Old Testament god Yahweh emerged not only as the most powerful god but as the only god. They at first conceived of him as their own god, but over time they came to view him as the god of everyone, as a universal god. Wright discusses how the Old Testament God became the Christian God and, later, the Islamic deity, Allah. (Some members of these faiths refuse to believe that their god is also the god of other faiths). Linguistically, the words for “god” in the Jewish and Islamic faiths are closely related.

A basic thesis in this book is that the emergence of a monotheistic God was closely related to the development of the concept of nationhood, of national identity.

By arguing that the Abrahamic concept of a single deity emerged from social and political circumstances, Wright presents God as a social construct. He doesn’t insist on God’s existence or nonexistence, but it’s clear, both from his approach to this subject and to his comments in the text, that he is at best a skeptic. But he does not argue for skepticism or atheism. He merely presents his theories, and those of religion scholars, about how the concept of a monotheistic god emerged in western culture. For believers, this process could be described as the way in which God chose to reveal himself. For nonbelievers, it is a matter of cultural evolution.

I was particularly interested in his description of the evolution of Jesus as a religious figure. Wright argues that the earliest statements that can be attributed to Jesus are ones indicating that he thought of himself as a political and even military leader, someone who might lead the Jewish people in a revolution against their oppressors. When Jesus was crucified, no revolution or revolt had occurred, and the followers of Jesus were left with a problem: how to characterize a messiah who did not bring about the long-prophesied revolt. Gradually, especially in the books of the New Testament that were written long after Jesus’ death, his nature came to be associated with miracles, with divinity, and finally with resurrection. The political, earthly messiah becomes a divine messiah.  Wright regards the apostle Paul as a brilliant manager who in his epistles sought to solidify the growing Christian faith and church and in the process laid down many of the basic tenets of Christianity.

Wright sees evidence of moral progress for humanity in how the Abrahamic faiths have evolved towards inclusiveness and tolerance. This progress he suggests might be seen as evidence of a divine presence or force, but this would be a much different deity, a non-anthropomorphic deity, from the one at the center of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

Even for a nonbeliever, Wright’s presentation of the Abrahamic faiths as the product of environmental and cultural and political forces offers a challenging and difficult approach to the idea of religion.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Wolfman

A number of landscape shots in The Wolfman (2010, dir. Joe Johnston) seem derived from the 19th-century British painter John Constable. One in particular shows the skyline of London from a distance, and even though Constable rarely if ever painted cityscapes, especially ones suggesting the industry and smoke that characterize cities, this scene in the film has all the characteristics of a Constable painting. Along with the smoke and smokestacks that rise above the horizon, there is a strange sort of pastoral serenity. For some reason this particular shot of the London skyline reminded me of William Blake’s poem “”London,” especially the opening stanzas:

I wander thro' each charter'd street,
Near where the charter'd Thames does flow,
And mark in every face I meet
Marks of weakness, marks of woe.

In every cry of every Man,
In every Infant's cry of fear,
In every voice, in every ban,
The mind-forg'd manacles I hear.

It’s tempting to say that Blake’s poem has nothing to do with The Wolfman, yet the film’s depictions of the city’s inhabitants and of the sordid city itself are consistent with the poem. The wolf man may inflict much of the suffering and carnage in the film, but he is in fact only an emblem, an expression, of the human world’s depravity and evil. I’m imposing these thoughts on the film as a viewer. The film itself does not ask for such ruminations. The serenity of the Constable-like visuals contrasts, of course, with the darkness that pervades the film.

As a wolf man film (there have been a number), this one is above average. Bernecio del Toro plays Lawrence Talbot, an actor called back to his father’s estate by the fiancĂ© of his brother, who has gone missing, and who by the time Talbot arrives at the estate has been found mangled and dead. The widow begs Bernecio to investigate, and he agrees. Anthony Hopkins plays Lawrence’s father John in an odd, cold, disaffected manner that is explained by later events in the film. For me Hopkins was the most interesting character in the film. Also notable was his personal servant Singh (Art Malik), a highly educated Sikh who, in the traditional manner of servants, knows more than anyone might expect about the family he works for.

The film interweaves the traditional wolf man narrative with dark family melodrama and a beauty and the beast tale.

Whatever interests these interwoven narrative elements might generate dissipate in the film’s final apocalyptic battle between two wolf men. It’s as if any conventional working out of the problems dramatized proves impossible, and the filmmakers resort to fire, supernatural transformations, battle, ultimate violence in order to bring it all to an end.

One of the most enduring images from a film seen in my childhood is in the 1941 film The Wolf Man (dir. George Waggner), in which Lon Chaney transforms from a man into a wolf man. The change is depicted with what I take to be stop-action photography, crudely rendered by modern standards, but utterly effective and convincing to my 8-year-old state of mind. The digital effects in this most recent wolf man film are serviceable but predictable—hair sprouts, limbs transform, and so on, but they lack the primal horror of Lon Chaney’s transfiguration.

The Wolf Man in general is a symbol or expression of the notion that beneath our decorous and civilized exteriors looms a bestial essence. The film Wolf (1994, dir. Mike Nichols), with Jack Nicholson and Michelle Pfeiffer, investigated this notion in a literal manner—Nicholson never undergoes a supernatural transformation, but the wolf—his primal masculine fury and sexual anger—manifests in his character.

Implicit in the wolf man films is a fear of racial impurity, of immigrants from non-western and lesser known parts of the world. The wolf man comes to England with the Roma people (gypsies in the film). Their presence, and the wolf man contagion that accompanies them, endangers the purported racial character of the English.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

What makes this film unusual and interesting is not its story-line about a young man trying to win a young woman’s affections. Nor is its trendy invocations of contemporary high school and early 20s culture unusual. Many films try to do this, some relatively well (as best as I can tell, from my aging perspective). What makes Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010; dir. Edgar Wright) an interesting film is its stylistic freshness, its wham-pow use of comic book motifs (it’s based on a comic book series), its use of video games (the story is essentially a video game narrative, a series of battles or challenges in which Scott Pilgrim must defeat a former boyfriend of the woman he loves), its post-postmodern use of fantasy and non-sequitur, its relentlessly frenetic pace and movement.

Wrapped inside this shiny chimerical package is the story of a boy who has to gain trust of self and respect for others, especially women. There’s also a love story here (several, in fact), and the story of a girl who has her own challenges to overcome, lessons to learn. This aspect is almost formulaic, hackneyed. Scott Pilgrim learns an important lesson about himself. This fact was a bit of a letdown, given the stylistic flair of the film as a whole.

The film begins with a bang and rarely slows down, until the end, when it drags a bit. But it’s always entertaining. Humorous, and witty. Full of action, funny characters, odd situations.

As innovative as the stylistic aspect of the film might seem, the use of on-screen labels to punctuate the action, or exaggerated sound-effects, links back to the Batman television series of the 1960s. In fact, when characters in the film posture and verbally spar before a fight, I am reminded of how Batman and the Riddler or the Joker would talk with one another before setting to. I was also reminded, in a way, of Stardust (2007), the film adaptation of a Neil Gaiman graphic novel. There’s something of the same whimsy and romance here, aimed at a different age set.

Comic books, graphic fiction in some cases, are providing the basis for all sorts of filmic adaptations, in many cases very successful ones, and this film is in that category..

Dreaming in Cuban, by Cristina Garcia

Cristina Garcia’s novel Dreaming in Cuban (Knopf, 1992) covers three generations in the life of a Cuban family, extending from the 1930s to 1980. Garcia’s focus is on family relationships, especially those between mothers and daughters. She also illustrates the impact of immigration to America on family members who leave their native country and who stay behind. Celia del Pino is the mother, and her daughters are Lourdes, Felicia; her son is Javier. An underlying anchor in the narrative is the revolution of 1960. Castro appears in the novel as el lidre, mainly in the thoughts and memories of the characters.

One might argue that this novel is latter day magical realism. Two characters speak to the ghost of their dead father shortly after his death. One speaks to him for most of a year, as he appears to her at random moments in New York. Felicia, who never leaves Cuba, is initiated into Santeria. Yet the world of this story is not necessarily an alternative world where fantastic things happen. Clashing cultures are evident—clashing sensibilities, ways of thinking. Western rationalism, Catholicism, and Africa-influenced Santeria all strive against and with one another in the various characters. A character who speaks with a ghost is not necessarily insane or demented; ghosts are in the reality of her culture. Cuba is a nation of the West, but also a nation heavily influenced by African culture, and Cubans reflect these different influences. What we really have in Dreaming in Cuban is an excursion into the clashing cultural realities that result when family members move from Cuba to the U.S. In New York, Lourdes is constantly reacting to her circumstances: she becomes a baker, she avidly embraces the ideology of rightwing Republican Americanism, she gains weight and then (in an incredible stint of fasting, loses it all, only to gain it back after an equally incredible feat of eating). She’s convinced her daughter Pilar has fallen into licentious ways. She has obsessive sex with her husband, often summoning him from his workroom for service. She patrols the neighborhood as a voluntary security person. She runs her bakery like a work camp in the gulag.

Lourdes’ daughter Pilar (the central consciousness of the book) is in constant revolt against her domineering mother, yet she holds her distance, accepts her mother’s tirades and accusations as expressions of personality traits she cannot control. The gradually evolving relationship of these two women is a subcurrent of interest throughout the novel.

Dreaming in Cuban examines the impact of immigration on those who move to another country, leaving their own behind, and those who stay at home, separated for decades or forever from family members. Some never adjust to the new state of things; others adjust so totally that they leave their former cultures behind and forgotten; others move forward. Pilar, who lived in Cuba for such a short time that she hardly remembers it, feels drawn there, but in the end accepts that it is not her home.

The characters in this book are sometimes larger than life—too eccentric, too exaggerated, too extreme. Yet they make an impact. You sense in this novel both the influence of Toni Morrison as well as of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The device of narrating this story through the voices or minds of characters, and of breaking the narrative into chronologically disconnected units, so that over the course of the book you move constantly back and forth between the 1930s and 1950s and 1970s, seems to me the influence of Faulkner, whom Garcia might have encountered directly in her readings, but who also could have come to her through the fiction of Marquez, strongly influenced by the Mississippi writer.

Men in this novel are adulterers, betrayers, impregnators, overbearing authoritarians, weak and insignificant presences. They are rarely in the foreground. El lidre himself is one of them. They make up part of the menacing, constantly shifting world through which the women struggle to prevail and survive.

Dreaming in Cuban is not a political novel. It does not argue for a particular position in the complicated political world inhabited by the members of the immigrant Cuban community in the U. S. It shows how radically changing circumstances impact people’s lives, destroying some but not others. It demonstrates the at once powerfully nurturing and constantly oppressive pull of family.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Paranormal Activity

I’m sorry that I watched Paranormal Activity (2006; dir. Oren Peli) alone. The film gradually raises tension, suspense, and fear through the most traditional and formulaic of horror-film techniques, but it does so artfully and inexorably. It shook me up. Afterwards, I regained my composure, ate a cracker, and settled down, but this film does what it’s supposed to do. With virtually no special effects, relatively amateurish actors, and a budget that was (supposedly) $11,000, the filmmakers used a video camera and ingenuity to build this tale of a young couple whose house has been invaded by an unwanted spirit—probably, as the psychic phenomena expert they consult explains, a demon.

This is not a film in which the supernatural phenomena are expressions of a character’s imagination. This is not The Others (2001) or The Turn of the Screw. The spirit is real. We see it at work via a craftily employed device: a video camera the boyfriend sets up in the bedroom to record any paranormal activity that takes place at night. He reviews each night’s activities the next morning. When something happens, we see it through the recording camera’s lens, and the effect is chilling objectivity. When things start to happen, they can’t be explained away—we see them.

The bedroom camera offers an interesting perspective. The bedroom is the center of the intimate life of a young couple, but there is only the suggestion of sex here. Rather than voyeuristic entry into the sex lives of these characters, the bedroom camera gives us access to the supernatural. It also makes us voyeurs, a role that gives the film a certain off-putting power. It disorients us, leaving us more open and vulnerable to the visitations that occur.

The setting of the film is tightly focused.  All the action occurs in the couple’s apartment, most of it in the bedroom.  The sense of constriction, even claustrophobia, that results contributes to the tension the film evokes.

The man is initially skeptical when the woman tells him about the visitations that have affected her since childhood. He sets up the camera in the bedroom to prove to her, and perhaps to himself, that she is imagining things. But what the camera does record convinces him. The woman fears the spirit that has attached itself to her. She is afraid of what might happen, of what it might do to her. The man takes a logical, rationalist approach. He is certain that he can figure out what is happening and find a way to combat it. His can-do attitude grows increasingly brittle as the film moves along, and as he continues to dismiss the woman’s fears. Though she begs and orders him not to try to communicate with the spirit, he can’t resist—sometimes he speaks to it aloud; and he brings in a Ouija board to try to communicate.

The husband is a brash and controlling personality. Although the spirit that invades their lives seems real, the way he tries to deal with it suggests problems in the relationship that might have consequences later on. He largely dismisses his girlfriend’s warnings, and those of the paranormal expert, about trying to communicate with the spirit.  He’s more interested in outwitting the spirit than in the woman’s fears.  His bumbling aggressiveness makes the couple more vulnerable and has a direct link to the outcome of the story.

In Paranormal Activity the rational and the irrational collide--the world we believe we know and the one that is threatening, irrational, and beyond our control.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Book of Eli

The Book of Eli (2010; dir. Albert and Allen Hughes) is more like The Road Warrior (1981) than The Road (2009), with a dash of Song of Bernadette (1943) thrown in for good measure. The palette of colors is similar to that in The Road—grays, black, white—dust and desolation everywhere--except that faces have color, and as the main character Eli approaches the West Coast in his trek across the continent we begin to see green.

The scenario here is that 38 years in the past a terrible war destroyed human civilization and most of the world’s population. The bombs left a hole in the ozone layer, so that the sun’s rays burned directly through the atmosphere, destroying most animal and plant life. Only roving bands of marauders and renegades and a few good souls are left. Men are killed, women are raped and killed, and there is some cannibalism—judging from the welcoming elderly couple we meet at one point. We don’t know many details of the war, though we do get to see ruins and a few craters.

Eli is one of the good souls. He discovered the last remaining copy of the Bible and is protecting it. Yes, the Bible. Of all the millions of copies in the world, only one remains. For some reason survivors of the war blamed the destruction on religion, apparently on Christianity, and they destroyed every copy of the Bible they could find. Eli has heard a voice, and he is trekking across the continent towards a place where the voice has told him the Bible will be safe.

Eli is a whiz with the bow and arrow, and he ruthlessly kills anyone who threatens him or people in his care, specifically Solara (Mila Kunis), an attractive young woman whom he rescues from the band that has taken her hostage. One man in particular, Carnegie, played by Gary Oldman, a man so savage that no one will mention his name (does this suggest another character played by Oldman?), is hunting for the Bible in Eli’s possession. We assume he wants to destroy it, though we learn differently later on. There, essentially, you have this film’s plot. Eli heading west, Carnegie looking for him, and we know some encounter is inevitable.

Like Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks, Denzel Washington plays himself in most films, and he usually does a good job of it. He is effective enough as Eli in this one. It’s the plot that’s at fault, and the essential concept underlying the film. That concept is that God has chosen Eli as his personal assistant, and he has assured Eli of safe passage as he heads west across the continent, whacking everyone who threatens him, piously certain of his purpose and destination.

I don’t object to religious films or religious themes or religious people. I object to the fraudulence of this film. Only at the end do we learn that Eli is blind, and that he has been guided all the way through his travels by God’s hand. When the Bible he has protected is taken from him (he gives it up to Carnegie to save Solara’s life), he heads on to California, and finds a fortress on the island of Alcatraz where all the relics of western culture are protected. The one item the fortress doesn’t have is the Bible, and Eli, grievously wounded, proceeds to recite it, word for word, before he dies. He has memorized it from the Braille edition he had carried with him.

Why do I object? The film itself plods along and is mildly entertaining but not excessively so. It is full of improbabilities large and small. Primary among them is the notion that every single copy of the Bible in the WORLD has been destroyed, save one. Also important is the notion that people were so mad at the Christians after the apocalyptic war that, rather than struggling to survive and rebuild their lives, they hunt down the Bibles and destroy them. Underlying the film then is the notion that Christians in our own world are imperiled and persecuted and are also the bearers of the light of Western Civilization. I reject this notion, though I do understand that many accept it. The voice that guides Eli in his journey, that aims his arrows straight and true, is a matter of faith, I suppose, but I believe that if God exists and that if he has an impact on the world (this is fairly implausible to me) it is through the actions of people who believe in him. I don’t believe he reaches down and guides a blind man across America in killing outlaws and shooting arrows and otherwise wreaking havoc on behalf of the holy book he carries. God if he exists is not like Jim Henson, or the designer of a video game.

If God is on Eli’s side, then God removes any dramatic tension or uncertainty from his journey. Who cares what threats he might face—he will succeed in his mission.

We are supposed to feel awestruck and humbled when the great revelation of Eli’s blindness comes. Instead I felt deceived. Cheap pandering tricks don’t win converts or make good films.

If you’re disappointed that I gave away the point, thank me for saving you the time you would have wasted had you watched this film.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time, by Greg Mortenson and David Arthur Relin

Greg Mortenson’s work during the 1990s and 2000s building schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the expression of a distinctly individual perspective towards the world, a resolute character, moral determination, and a deep desire to better the human condition. As a tool of international diplomacy building schools offers a distinct alternative to bombs and soldiers.

Three Cups of Tea: One Man's Mission to Promote Peace . . . One School at a Time (Viking Penguin, 2006) is Greg Mortenson’s story up until around 2006. Mortenson and David Arthur Relin are listed as authors, though the book reads as if Relin wrote it, drawing heavily on Mortenson. The book is honest about Mortenson’s defects, his disorganization, tendency towards depression, impatience. It describes how he lived in a storage locker while working as a medical assistant in the United States. He seems always to have been an odd character, in the sense of eccentric and maladjusted, also in the sense of possessing an integrity and a will that few others can emulate, that empower him to take up causes that to others would seem impossible. If Mortenson had fit neatly into the mainstream, we wouldn’t have this book and his story.

The title refers to an expression of hospitality in Afghanistan. If a visitor to a home is offered three cups of tea, he knows he has become a member of the host family.

Three Cups primarily focuses on Mortenson’s work in the remote areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan, and his efforts to raise support and funds for his efforts in the United States. He becomes friends with a number of tribes. They are at first suspicious of him as a strange American, but ultimately his sincerity, respect for their customs, and knowledge of their culture and languages make them welcome him in. The descriptions of the countryside, the mountains and valleys, and of the villages where he works, are vivid.

Not all war is avoidable. But the approach that Mortenson has taken to building schools in a part of the world that is at present at odds with the United States offers a better way of mending fences and building relations than do bombs and drones that often kill civilians. Many of the people Mortenson meets express friendly attitudes towards America. Many are opposed to Al Qaeda and to terrorism. But when the U. S. operations against Al Qaeda begin in 2002, the charitable notions of these people towards the United States are challenged. The efforts of people like Mortenson offer a counterbalance to the violence and destruction of war.

In ways Three Cups of Tea reminds me of The Places In Between, Rory Stewart’s narrative about his trek across Afghanistan in the months immediately following the 2011 terrorist bombings in New York City. Equally informative, Stewart’s book is more literary in nature, a masterpiece of its sort, though the example of Mortenson’s life and career in itself is compelling and humbling and its own example of a life well lived.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

The latest installment in the Harry Potter series (dir. David Yates, 2010) is a somber and melancholic film. Harry, Hermione, and Ron leave Hogwarts, their home for the past six novels and films, and go out into the countryside, trying to lead Voldemort away from friends and family, and preparing for the final confrontation that all the previous films and books have lead towards.

While the earlier films gave us these characters in the context of friends and families, and of Hogworts, this one thrusts them out in the world. They’re alone, often at odds with each other, and at risk. There’s little that’s warm and cheery here—compare the tone of this film with the first and second installments.

There’s allegory—the allegory of our own lives, the loss of childhood and innocence, the discovery of compromise and complication, of responsibility, pain, mortality.

I can’t think of another instance where over a ten-year period three actors portraying characters of about their own age, appearing in film after film, grow older together, learn and mature, preparing for adult life, just as their characters are doing. It’s life imitating art, and vice versa. As the characters grow up through the novels, we have seen Rowling herself developing as a novelist. We begin with a book written for children, about children, and now in the final installment we have a book whose characters are grown and who confront dark forces. For a child, the latest Harry Potter film, like the book it’s based on, should be frightening. But many readers have grown up with these books and films, and others (including this writer) have grown older with them as well.  Readers, film viewers, fictional and film characters, and the author grow up together.

This film is better than, bigger than, itself alone because it is (for now) the sum of the individual parts that make up the series. The ideal viewer of this film is not someone who hasn’t read the books or seen the earlier installments. The film does stand on its own, but it’s more meaningful as a part of the series, and as a penultimate step towards the confrontation and conclusion that we know will come.