Sunday, January 11, 2009

DOUBLE FEATURE: A Trip to Bountiful / The Unbelievable Truth

We have here a curious duality - one movie whose title is completely obvious, and another which, after two viewings, I still can't really fully describe. Let's dive in, shall we?

Vital Statistics:
A Trip to Bountiful, 1985
Rating: K

A Trip to Bountiful is based on a stage play by Horton Foote, which I was fortunate enough to see at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, OR. I don't remember much of the stage production, except a crystal image of the abandoned house, picked out in oranges and browns. The play I recall as being very autumnal, which the film is strikingly not. This movie is a summer movie, a summer movie set in southwest Texas of the early 1940s. It's the story of a highly dysfunctional family (which I recall being better played onstage), and one woman's journey to return to her roots. It's a film loaded with hope, a "creation" film. It has one of my favorite hymns in it, and one of my mother's as well - "Softly and Tenderly," a classic old rooter.

As for theology...there's a definite connection between the idea of Bountiful (this woman's hometown) and Eden - a sense of loss and a desire to return to her roots. There's a strong distinction drawn between loving your neighbour and not. Some characters are cruel and spiteful - all the fellow-travelers are kind and helpful. This is, of course, promptly deconstructed when you begin to see the good intentions behind the cruelty and spite of the "evil." I was struck especially by the rather wistful portrayals of the nameless girl on the bus, and the sherriff. Might-have-beens connect with the desire to return to Eden. And once you get helps. It puts you back on a half-remembered path. The journey and the destination mingle to create a new person, once you've walked the road.

That may have sounded a bit maudlin. The movie's kinda like that.

The Unbelievable Truth, 1989
Rating KJ-13

Have you, ever had a conversation where you and the other person weren't actually listening to one another? Not just "waiting for your turn to speak," I mean that you're both essentially monologuing on unrelated topics.

Imagine that, only it's a movie. The whole movie. There's a scene like that in the movie, but, in fact, the whole movie is kind of that way. We've talked a bit in class about film as a conversation, but in this conversation, whatever I might have tried to say to Hal Hartley, The Unbelievable Truth was going to go the direction he wanted it to go.

There's a continuous refrain with the main character: "Are you a priest?" "No, I'm a mechanic." And it sounds absurd. But there seems to be something in common there. I couldn't tell you what, but something.

This, thus far, has been my favorite of the movies, and is a contender for champion overall. We'll see.

*A note on the rating system. These are intended largely for my mother - sort of an old joke. They are as follows.

K - Mom, you will object to nothing in this movie.
KJ - Oh, I'd forgotten that scene. Whoops. Sorry.
KJ-13 - Okay, there are a few bits we're gonna fast-forward through...
F - Sorry, Mom. I broke the DVD.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Babette's Feast

So, the Barkeep would want me to mention that Babette's Gaestebud was directed by Gabriel Axel, and won the 1987 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The original short story was written by Karen Blixen (Wikipedia also notes Isak Dinesen, with Blixen in parentheses - I'm going with the name in the credits), who also wrote the (oddly) familiar Out of Africa. I don't think I've seen it, but I've sure heard of it.
It occurs to me as I begin this post that I don't know exactly what I'm reviewing for. I'm tempted to just start with numbers, because they're much easier to spout, but that's not real criticism, so in spite of my temptation to award the thing "Four and a Half Jesuses," I'm going to try to confine the discussion to each film's theological message for me personally.
So the big word of the day is "balance." There's a temptation in Christianity towards "antinomianism," that is, a complete reliance on spirit in the body/spirit divide. We've been having trouble with various sects of this persuasion since slightly after the death of Christ, while at the same time we try to react against the materialist obsessions of the (insert decadent civilization here). Body matters, we want to say, but body is not all. Christ had a body - he also had a meaningful divine spirit.
From my end, Babette's Feast is a classic walking of the line. There is no condemnation of the piety of the community (while at the same time not quite endorsing it), and there's no overt endorsement of the delightful banquet - just a view of the pleasant results. The film seems to imply that there's room for both perspectives in a truly balanced view of the world.
I realize that's pretty surface, but I'm running on empty - I'll see if I have more for you tomorrow.

Sunday, January 4, 2009


So, my class this J-term is "Theology in Film." I am the screener for the class, (I'm getting paid anytime there's a movie on, I think), and I get to watch a ton of movies, none of which I've ever seen before. Can't beat that with a stick.

So, this is my film review blog for the whole month of January. Expect multiplicities of posts! Scads of content! Ponies! Links! Ideas! Criticism out the Wazzoo From Which Criticism Should Not Come!

As a special bonus, the inhabitants of the House of Calamitous Intent have requested a movie outside of my class syllabus - I expect to oblige them on the second weekend of term. The Barkeep has been solicited for a further one - does anyone else have any theological film review requests? If you want me to talk about the place or treatment of God in a cinematic expression (including TV episodes), your wish is my command. I'm jazzed, you see.

So - that's the plan, starting tomorrow night, probably during my second viewing of Babbette's Feast.

(I might have lied about the ponies)