Reflections on Four Lions

Posted in Film Reflections on September 28, 2010 by corthirthiac

Four Lions (2010) is a film that stumped me. It’s an enjoyable enough film, and yet I really couldn’t puzzle out what to think of it for a good while after I saw it. Ostensibly, it’s about four radical Muslims in the UK who want to become terrorists and wage a holy jihad on the decadent westerners. Except–contrary to the sombre, fearful, and almost hallowed way in which we usually see Islamic terrorists portrayed–these men are bumbling nincompoops. The leader, Omar, rallies together a few like-minded (in more ways than just ideology) men in his small British suburb, including an egotistical white Muslim convert, Barry, the easily confused and child-like Waj, and Fessel, a man who is afraid to suicide bomb, so instead he is training crows to carry bombs. But the men are all more reminiscent of the Three Stooges than they are of the terrorists we picture flying planes into buildings. When Omar and Waj visit Pakistan for to attend a terrorist training camp, they accidentally blow up another nearby camp of terrorists. Undeterred, however, they return home and set about making big plans to suicide bomb important targets. And this is where the film gets sticky. These men, laughable though they may be, are actually, truly, terrorists. They’re not just bumbling fools who talk big but wouldn’t actually hurt someone; no, these men want to get on a plane or a bus and blow themselves and all their fellow men up. This unsettled me at first. Is this really something to be laughing at? Moreover, these characters are almost sympathetic. You fell so bad for them, you almost want them to go out with an effective bang. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized: this is exactly the best response to jihadists we could have. The point of terrorism is to get us to cower in fear. After all, it’s right there in the name: terror-ism. When we give the terrorists respect, when we speak of them only in terms of their awesome abilities to disrupt our lives and economies, we are letting them win, in much the same way that Voldemort had cowed the world into calling him He Who Shall Not Be Named and thereby retained his frightful presence despite his long absence. Making the terrorists into a farce is, quite possibly, the most disrespectful thing to do to them. And, afterall, the terrorists are not so very far from this caricature; remember the so called “Shoe Bomber”? How about the “Underwear Bomber”? These guys were not holy warriors–they were loonies; bumbling crackpots who got their hands on some (potentially, in the right hands) dangerous materials. And so I applaud Four Lions for its satirization of the jihadists. They’re nuts. They deserve to be poked fun at, and the best thing we can do is laugh at them.


Reflections on Okuribito

Posted in Film Reflections on September 7, 2010 by corthirthiac

I just finished watching Okuribito (aka Depatures.) I’d had this film sitting about for awhile. To be quite honest, I couldn’t even remember why I’d picked it up. Yesterday afternoon, I was looking for something to watch, and not in the mood for something too action-y or purely comedic, and so I turned to Okuritbito. It is a slow film, but this is to its merit. It takes time to develop, and does not rush its point. Okuribito follows Daigo Kobayashi, a young man in his mid 20’s, as he returns with his wife to the small village where he grew up. Daigo is…well, I’m not sure how to describe him. He’s certainly a character with whom I can empathize. After the orchestra Tokyo in which he plays the cello is disbanded, he decides to give up his lifelong pursuit of music, believing that he was not good enough to ever land another orchestra position, noting that “what I’d always taken as my dream maybe hadn’t been one after all.” Upon returning to his small town, he inadvertently ends up working for an older gentleman whose business is encoffinment, which many disdain. If you, like me, were not familiar with this practice, it is a separate job from that of undertakers; the encoffiners prepare the body, in the presence of the family, for placement in the coffin; they wash the bodies, and clothe them and apply make-up. This is all done in a very deliberate, ritualistic, and reserved manner. The majority of the film then follows Daigo as he comes to understand the meaningfulness of life and death, as he works along side the master encoffiner giving the parting blessings to many families’ beloved.

This film is beautiful. That was the one word that kept springing to mind as I watched it. Many, I believe, will find this film boring. To me, it was a breath of fresh air. Those who cannot see beyond slapstick humor and violent gun battles had best look elsewhere for their entertainment. This film requires an appreciation of beauty, and a deep introspection into the facets of mortality, and our interactions with those around us. Okuribito is not a humorless sombre film. It is filled with many poignant moments of humor; but these are never cheap throw-away gags or shoddy contrived moments where the filmmaker whispers in your ear “you’re supposed to laugh at this.” Instead, they flow naturally, and induce a grinning smile, not raucous laughter. I do not say that every film needs be this way; but it is good, I think, to enjoy this sort of film every once in awhile, so that we do not lose touch with that quieter side of ourselves.

Upon completing Okuribito, I looked over the IMDB entry for it, and discovered that it won the 2009 Oscar for Best Foreign Film; which is most likely why I’d acquired it.

Reflections on Triumph of the Will

Posted in Film Reflections with tags , , , , , on May 10, 2010 by corthirthiac

Leni Reifenstahl  really is a master of propaganda. Her stunning pseudo-documentary Olympia is a magnificent example of the combining of montage, music, and powerful imagery to portray its benefactors in the most particularly pleasing ways possible. As the film begins, Reifenstahl spends many minutes building up a slow tension. She begins by showing images of the ancient Greek ruins on the Acropolis, and then interspersing them with powerful pictures of the Greek athletes in statue form. One begins to feel the mighty weight and dominating power of this ancient state, and the raw physical prowess of the ancient athletes. Reifenstahl then deftly transitions the statues into modern-day athletes, dressed like their ancient counterparts. The viewer clearly understands that these athletes are the direct descendants of the Greek Olympians, and that none on earth are their equals. Slowly, these morph into images of the 1934 Olympic Games in Berlin, giving an overwhelming sense of the accomplishment both of ancient man and of modern man, and how closely we are tied to him. There is no doubt that the Third Reich is the successor to the mighty Greek and Roman empires. Reifenstahl accomplishes her purpose admirably. In the beginning stages, she does not use any hard cuts, but instead smoothly transitions scenes with a slow fade, sometimes lasting several seconds. This helps reinforce the ideas of time, and of the connectivity of the images. The music, is, naturally, rousing and patriotic, and gives a sense of finality and emotional depth to the film.

Whether or not we agree with Reifenstahl, or Hitler and his Third Reich, we have to admit that this film is a superb example of effective and powerful propaganda. While the film may not have swayed anyone opposed to the Nazis to switch sides, it certainly could have a rousing effect on those as yet undecided if the Third Reich was really all that noteworthy. Also, the film would help strengthen the Nazi Party base, and bolster the spirits of the German people by teaching them of their inherent physical superiority. They were worthy of all that Hitler promised, not because of their technological superiority alone, but also because of their inherent, inherited physical superiority, in which they were near to being gods.

Reflection on Battleship Potemkin

Posted in Film Reflections with tags , , , on May 3, 2010 by corthirthiac

I had seen scenes from Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin many times before, and while they were impressive, I’ve never particularly cared to see the film itself. However, after viewing it recently in its entirety, I was amazed at how brilliant a film it is. Eisenstein certainly deserves his reputation as a master of the montage. The soundless battle sequences were better choreographed and cut than many I have seen from much higher budget, newer films (pick any of Ridley Scott’s films). The film works stunningly well as a piece of propaganda, not coming across at all as preachy, but instead as genuinely telling the story of a band of sympathetic mutineers. Herein lies the true key to propaganda: let the film be, first and foremost, a good narrative film. If the audience is engaged with the film, watching and sympathizing with likable characters, then they are at the mercy of the filmmaker and will follow his promptings.  Too many American, and more recently, Christian and Liberal propaganda films miss this point entirely, choosing to make films that are blatant in their espousal of their respective viewpoints, sacrificing narrative for more thorough explanations of and arguments for the ideology. Potemkin, however, portrays the leading characters in such a manner that we, though disagreeing with the ideology of the film, cannot help but sympathize with the them. Some historicity was sacrificed for this cause, although Eisenstein did a remarkably good job of staying true to the original story, which fit his goals well enough anyway. A major asset for Eisenstein is Shostakovich and Kruikov’s rousing musical scoring, perfectly complimenting the action and letting the audience, in lieu of dialog, know what to feel about each scene. The amount of emotion carried simply in the music is astounding, and without the soundtrack the film would be drastically weaker.

The Ratings System

Posted in Commentary, Film Reflections with tags on April 26, 2010 by corthirthiac

For all its many faults, the MPAA’s rating system is really not such a bad thing. It is my belief that a ratings system is one of the best–if not the best–systems for filtering media content for public consumption. As the film This Film Is Not Yet Rated highlights, many feel that the current ratings system is unfair. And truly, the MPAA does have its faults. But even of those, perhaps many are not inherent to the MPAA, but products of the way we view the system. What if we thought of the MPAA as simply thought of as an entity entirely independent of the industry; an autonomous group who has agreed to give their opinion of the appropriate age for viewing of any film submitted. A filmmaker creates his film, asks them to review it, they give a review, and that’s that. There is no more room for complaint against the organization that against an individual for not liking a particular film. It doesn’t have to be “fair”–it never claimed to be.

This picture is what the MPAA thinks of itself. It is not, however, the way it is viewed (an not altogether without reason). Filmmakers have come to expect the MPAA to be an impartial judge, grading with a ruler, measuring each scene against a chart. When the MPAA subjectively views one piece of material differently than another, they cry fowl. If a film is given an NC-17 rating, filmmakers frequently feel misused, citing instances in other films they view as being equally inoffensive (or equally offensive) which were rated R. Filmmakers feel, in a way, as if the subjective nature of the MPAA puts them at the mercy of winds.

But the MPAA makes no promises: films are given what they consider a fair rating. Whether or not it is fair is beside the point. The filmmakers film what they want, and the raters rate what they want. The one sticky wicket here is that the major studios are in contract to only release films rated by the MPAA, and most theatres will not carry NC-17 rated films. But the reason theatres will not carry these films is typically because of low attendance and the public outrage when they do carry them, which is one of the reasons the studios originally banded together with the MPAA. It therefore becomes a matter of the chicken and the egg. The filmmaker cannot show his film at most theatres because it is rated NC-17, and it is rated NC-17 because it will be highly inappropriate for younger audiences, and therefore would not be shown at most theatres.

The advent of the internet is, in my opinion, rendering much of this particular issue moot. Services such as Netflix allow instant access to films of all ratings, giving a wide potential audience to films not allowed at theatre chains or rental stores. The barring from these institutions no longer marks complete obscurity for a film, and therefore the film must stand or fall on its own merit.

The Fall of the Legion

Posted in Commentary, Research with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 16, 2010 by corthirthiac

This is a chapter summary of and commentary on An Unwelcome Miracle, by F.R. Walsh.

Walsh, F.R. (1996). An unwelcome Miracle. In Sin and censorship: The Catholic Church and the motion picture industry (241-261). New Haven.: Yale University Press.

The Catholic Church and Hollywood have had something of a roller-coaster affair throughout the twentieth century. Frank Walsh documents this tumultuous relationship in his book Sin and Censorship: The Catholic Church and the Motion Picture Industry. For several decades, the Catholic Church held sway over the film industry to an astounding degree, through their fittingly named Catholic Legion of Decency. By the early 1950’s, however, the Legion was beginning to lose its grip on both the film industry’s product and the hearts and minds of a vast number of Americans.

Hollywood had long labored under the scrupulous gaze of both the Catholic Legion of Decency and its own Production Code Administration (PCA). The two were used to working together, and even held a special meeting in 1946, agreeing to “maintain a united front against . . . such controversial topics as rape, homosexuality, and abortion” (242). However, the late 1940’s saw a series of films slyly begin worming their way through this bulwark. In 1949 a script for The Doctor and the Girl was sent to the offices of Joseph Breen, director of the PCA. When he rejected it for dealing with the subject of abortion, the studio filed an appeal to Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which held the leash of the PCA, citing the script’s tasteful handling of the matter as reason for its approval. The MPAA ordered Breen to find a compromise. Breen eventually gave PCA approval to the film, after forcing the abortion to be referenced as simply an “illegal operation,” and the Legion rated it for A-II: for adults, but not condemned.

Soon other films followed in its footsteps, though, each pushing a little more the envelope of acceptability. Breen himself took note of the change, remarking that “there is some sinister force at work . . . [and] I am satisfied in my own mind that this condition, which has come about in recent months, did not just ‘happen’” (244). The next film to raise controversy within the Legion and PCA offices was the 1950 film adaptation of Tennessee Williams’s play A Streetcar Named Desire. The film revolves around issues which both administrations considered morally objectionable: suicide, adultery, homosexuality, rape, seduction, and drunkenness. Eventually another compromise was reached, falling back upon the principle of compensating values.

By 1950, the PCA, although having made only small concessions, had begun to stray far from the dogmatic approach of its early days. It had begun allowing the tastefully executed portrayal of issues it would never even have considered a decade earlier. Studios took note of this fact, and scripts poured in, filled with controversial topics. The Legion of Decency had also slightly loosened its ratings, but it maintained the stronger face against indecency of the two. Interestingly, however, the next few films, which really brought about the toppling of the Legion as the strong-armed agent of morality in Hollywood, were either relatively inoffensive, or inconsequential save for the role they played in weakening the Legion.

About this time, foreign films were beginning to rock the boat of censorship. They were subject to no censorship except for a summary screening upon import to ensure that they were not “obscene.” These films were largely ignored, since they garnered such a small audience, and few theatres ever showed them. American studios were taking note, though, of the freedom to allowed foreign films, and their unrest with censorship grew. Fittingly, it would be a foreign film that would take the next big step in shedding censorship from American cinema.

The Miracle(1948) was a small foreign film from Italian director Roberto Rossellini. The film is about an insane peasant woman, who believes a vagrant is Saint Joseph. She becomes pregnant by this man, and believes it to be an immaculate conception from the Holy Ghost. In the final scene, which imitates the nativity, she gives birth to a child she believes is the Christ. The Miracle passed muster at the New York State board of censors twice, once as a stand-alone film, and once as part of trilogy of short films. It opened on December 12, 1950, in New York City. The film did poorly its first week, and Walsh notes that it would in all likelihood have closed quietly and been forgotten, had not Edward McClafferty, a Catholic and the city commissioner of licenses, closed the film, believing it to be blasphemous. Immediately a furor arose, and a court case appealing McClafferty’s decision was filed. The case was found in favor of The Miracle, as McClafferty did not have the authority to ban what the state board had approved. The tumult did not end there, however. The Legion and dozens of other concerned groups around the nation began a campaign against the film, and theatres showing it were subjected to all sorts of mob tactics as protesters got out of hand. The court cases continued, as the opponents of The Miracle appealed to have it banned. Eventually in 1952 the case came before the United States Supreme Court. This landmark case turned into a landslide against censorship, as the court ruled unanimously “that a state may not ban a film on the basis of a censor’s conclusion that it is ‘sacrilegious’” (254). This stunned Catholics and the Legion of Decency, and set what they rightfully assumed would be a game-changing precedent. The Supreme Court continued to expand upon this decision in various other cases over the next several years, removing censorship in almost every case, virtually wiping away state-sponsored censorship.

This left the PCA and the Legion as the only defense against immoral films, as government boards now had little power. This increased pressure on the PCA and the Legion caused them to fall under even more scrutiny, and their weaknesses began to show.  A Walsh aptly points out, perhaps the Legion would have been wise at this juncture to choose its battles more cautiously. The 1952 Cecille B. deMille film The Greatest Show on Earth would cause enormous trouble for the Legion of Decency. It told the story of a band of circus performers, including a lady’s man, and a surgeon-turned-clown who was guilt-fraught over a mercy killing he had performed years before, and was now running from the authorities.  The Legion objected greatly to deMille’s film, citing the lady’s man as being too carnal, the clown as creating sympathy for euthanasia, and the circus performers costumes as being too indecent. Many people, including deMille, thought the Legion’s claims to be ludicrous. Several publications, including some Catholic ones, published positive reviews of the film, unaware of the Legion’s issues with it. One Catholic publication even arranged for a private screening of the film upon learning of the controversy, and found the film to be wholly unobjectionable.  For the first time, there was widespread disagreement with a ruling from the Legion, and the Legion’s foundations started to crumble. There was grumbling that the Legion was out of touch with public sentiment. Some theatre owners, who had long respected the Legion’s judgments, began showing Legion condemned films in spite of letters from the Legion requesting them to desist.

The final film to break the Legion’s power was United Artists’ 1953 film The Moon Is Blue, a tale of a young girl who is willingly seduced by an admittedly immoral and roguish man. The PCA refused to give the seal of approval to this film, and Martin Quigley, advisor to the PCA, also warned that the Legion would condemn it unless it were revised. The studio appealed the PCA decision to the MPAA, but before getting a decision, it decided to release the film without approval. This required that United Artists resign from the MPAA, as they were contractually obligated to gain PCA approval on all released films. Interestingly, the Legion reviewers felt that The Moon Is Blue only deserved a B rating, but the Legion directors overruled them, giving it a C rating, in large part because Quigley had pressured them into doing so to preserve his own reputation, since he had already informed United Artists that the Legion would condemn the film. The film did manage to raise a fair amount of ire throughout the nation, as many were outraged by its showing without PCA or Legion approval. Several states banned it outright, but United Artists took the states to court, and, thanks to the Miracle precedent, won every case. Many Catholics did not even find the film to be particularly objectionable, and spoke out against the Legion’s rating. Even Legion director Father Little was forced to admit that the controversy surrounding and condemnation of The Moon Is Blue had only helped boost ticket sales. Finally, Hollywood had proven that a film could be successful without the MPAA, PCA, or the Legion of Decency.

Each individual case is relatively insignificant, even the titular Miracle case. Taken as a whole, however, they paint the picture of the Legion’s rapid decline. The entire process took only four years. Of course, the Legion did not disappear in 1953, but its authoritative power was broken with The Moon Is Blue. Walsh documents several more incidents of theatre owners and municipal leaders ignoring the leadership of the Legion shortly thereafter. The Legion continued to operate, still having significant sway over the Catholic millions. In 1966 the Legion was renamed, but it still continues to function, rating films as always. There is a great deal of difference, however, in having the power to sway the viewing habits of a large mass of people, and being able to actually control the product released, both in content and availability. Until 1953, if the Legion condemned a film, it was a death knell for the film, unless it were revised such that the Legion approved it. Indeed, most studios never dreamed of attempting to release a film without Legion approval—the Legion was given nearly the same amount of editorial liberty as the PCA. Not long after The Moon Is Blue though, Legion could only condemn films and forbid Catholics from viewing them, but they could not effect the widespread boycotting or banishment that they were accustomed to.

The Miracle case, frequently lauded the deciding factor in removing censorship, really affected the Legion little. The Legion could have, in all likelihood, continued its strong censorship for many years without the legal support of state censorship boards. If a Legion C effected a total boycott, a governmental ban was of relatively little consequence. For years films without PCA or Legion approval, mostly of foreign ilk, had shown at a few small theatres in downtown districts, without undermining the Legion. However, due to the Legion’s weakening image, it quickly lost the groundroots support necessary to withstand the onslaught of changing values. The loss of government censorship boards only exacerbated this problem, quickening and highlighting the demise of the Legion’s power.

Reflections on The Public Enemy

Posted in Film Reflections with tags , , , on March 6, 2010 by corthirthiac

The Public Enemy (1931) is the story of the rise and fall of the fictional hoodlum-turned-gangster Tom Powers, and is purported to have been based on real-life events. The story is far more personal than might have been expected, as it follows Tom Powers from his delinquent childhood to his untimely death in a mob retaliation.

The Public Enemy was decried by critics and censorship advocates as a glamorous picture which glorified mob violence and gangsters, presumably filling children’s minds with all the wrong sorts of impressions. Perhaps it is my contemporary view of organized crime, which today has been almost entirely relegated to the enterprises of drug cartels and human trafficking, but I don’t find The Public Enemy’s portrayal of gangster life to be particularly alluring at all. Tom Powers is presented, in my view, as a two-bit insolent ruffian with a big attitude, a gun, and a penchant for bullying. Powers repeatedly comes across as  insensitive and thick, especially in his relationship with his family. He argues with his brother constantly in the most petty of ways, and although he tries to be kind to his mother, she is portrayed as such a hopelessly incompetent and simple woman, that it is hard to identify with Powers even in this. The ending of the film even more clearly settles the case of Powers being an unadmirable character, when he is killed a most humiliating manner, and left on his own door-step, trussed and face-down. Perhaps if Powers had died during his dramatic attack on the rival gang’s hideout, it might be easier to view him as a glamorous hero.

A more likely candidate for impressing youth with the panache of the gangster is the character of Nails Nathan. However, Nathan is only rarely on-screen, and does not have much of an opportunity to impress youth one way or the other. Mike Powers, Tom’s brother, is most likely the film-makers’ idea of a worthy role-model, but he simply comes across as inarticulate and haughty.

In many ways, the audience is repulsed by the actions of the gangsters. Power’s killing of Putty Nose is certainly shown in a way that’s very unsympathetic to Powers.  The violence in the film is not of a particularly graphic nature, nor is it very glamorized. The womanizing of the gangsters is perhaps slightly more cause for the censors to worry, as it is shown in a relatively neutral manner, being neither glorified nor condemned, but given that Powers is already an unadmirable character, he is unlikely to influence the audience, and his friend Matt Doyle’s womanizing is constrained to a single woman, to whom he becomes engaged—surely not an issue for the censors.

Ultimately, I think the censors’ fears for the influence of this film were mostly ungrounded, as none of the gangsters are shown in such a way that their actions are romanticized.