Sunday, April 22, 2007

More reviews

While I try to take violence to the next level, a few good books and movies.

I recently finished EM Forster's classic lecture series Aspects of the Novel. While the first sections on plot and character are quite interesting, apart from the references to books solidly in the British tradition that I haven't read, like Tom Jones and Portrait of a Lady, the later sections suffer from some concerns peculiar to his era. The section on fantasy, in particular, was written to explain to people that they could suspend their disbelief and let fantastic things become a part of their stories. Our hindsight, with the benefit of Tolkien and all his progeny, need not be told. The comparison of (I think it was George Eliot) with Dostoyevsky was instructive, though. Both depict scenes of conversion, but Eliot goes with a voice of preaching, while Dostoyevsky takes the strange, sacred voice of the prophet (in a scene from The Brothers Karamazov). What he was trying to get at was that Dostoyevsky was writing deeper than Eliot.

I've come across the same theme in a great book by the lady who wrote A Wrinkle in Time. It's called Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art by Madeleine L'Engle. I would buy this book. It is a third, say, a reflection on art, a third theological, and a third devotional. I could read books like this all day and all night. In some ways it reminds me of The Mind of the Maker, by Dorothy L. Sayers, but it's more personal and magical. I haven't finished it yet.

I also finished a great memoir. I don't read too many of these, but a friend recommended it way back when. It's called Girl Meets God: On the Path to a Spiritual Life, by Lauren Winner. It's the odd but true story of a girl born to interfaith parents, who first decided to become an Orthodox Jew, then slowly came around to Christianity. She never writes exactly why she became a Christian; there is no conversion moment. Instead, there is a loving description of both her Judaism and her Christianity, of life lived through those prisms and what faith does in an ordinary life.

I saw the new James Bond movie the other day. It was action violence as you might expect, but it had heart and character too. It was a very interesting, throwback James Bond, in the Sean Connery mold, certainly better than the Pierce Brosnan fare we've had to swallow for the past few years, but nothing so spectacular as I had been led to believe. Solid, meaty, but not world-beating.

If I object to anything, it's the depiction of poker. Yes, big pots are won and lost by a great hand losing to a phenomenal hand, but it's more often like two pair losing to three of a kind, or just maybe a full house losing to a higher full house. But even more often, tournaments end with the escalation of the blinds, as more and more players are forced to protect their stacks by moving all-in with subpar hands.

For that reason, I found the scene where a four-of-a-kind loses to the straight flush to be a pretty hack move. I just read a great Aristotle line about the audience in Walking on Water (paraphrase): People will believe the probable impossible more than the possible improbable. In other words, presentation is everything; dragons can be more convincing than this kind of poker hand. Truth may be stranger than fiction; there is a story in The Biggest Game in Town where Johnny Moss recounts a hand where he won a boatload of money. His opponent turned over the 6 of spades with the 7 through 10 on the board for the straight flush, but Johnny had the jack of spades, the higher straight flush. The fact that it really happens is no excuse for putting it into a story, though.

I also saw The Prestige the other day. It's one of the best movies I've seen in the past year, perfect at what it does. It's the story of a sometimes nasty rivalry between two magicians at the turn of the century. Magician A is suave, debonair, with a flair for the dramatic. Magician B is more rough and homely, but he does a fantastic trick that Magician A can't match. Magician A becomes obsessed with beating Magician A, learning his secret, and topping his trick. The characters are pretty cruel to one another. When they get violent, it's realistic and raw. The cruelty is probably worse than the violence itself. But the plot is so good, and every note is so right, it's yet another strong recommendation for an adult-content, violent movie.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Happy birthday!

My lovely wife Sarah is 26 today! You could stroll over to her blog and send her a birthday wish...

I love you, sweetheart!

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Would the whole world pass him by?

Read this article. Watch the videos. It's awesome.

Christos anesti!

Sunday, April 01, 2007

And now for something completely different

I'm writing a post about violence in movies and literature in response to some of Vince's comments, but this popped through my reader and I just can't resist. From Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, comes this editorial on the mistreatment of British prisoners in Iran. Here's the first paragraph:

I share the outrage expressed in the British press over the treatment of our naval personnel accused by Iran of illegally entering their waters. It is a disgrace. We would never dream of treating captives like this - allowing them to smoke cigarettes, for example, even though it has been proven that smoking kills. And as for compelling poor servicewoman Faye Turney to wear a black headscarf, and then allowing the picture to be posted around the world - have the Iranians no concept of civilised behaviour? For God's sake, what's wrong with putting a bag over her head? That's what we do with the Muslims we capture: we put bags over their heads, so it's hard to breathe. Then it's perfectly acceptable to take photographs of them and circulate them to the press because the captives can't be recognised and humiliated in the way these unfortunate British service people are.


After my last post, I got a comment from Vince, a friend from church, who writes, among other things,

A couple of very mature Christians that I respect were discussing and laughing about "Kill Bill". With some trepidation I decided to see what they were raving about. I was appalled and never got beyond the kitchen scene. The beauty of humans should remain so.

Certainly there is a place for graphic violence, but only in the despising of graphic violence ... "Schindler's List" for instance.

Just a bit of elderly exhortation.

Your character and kindness seem to bear the violence well, but only in spite of these gruesome selections.

Where to start? Maybe with kung fu movies. As long-time observers of my life will know, I have been a Jackie Chan fan since I first saw Rumble in the Bronx at Mike Tosch's house way back when. I find the cartoony violence of Who Am I? and Drunken Master II (in the US, dubbed and retitled Legend of Drunken Master) delightful, more people dancing and pretending to hit each other than actually violent. (Chan's taken a real downturn of late in the very soggy Around the World in Eighty Days and The Tuxedo, but I'm sure he'll be on top again any month now.)

Some of his grittier outings like Police Story appeal to me less, and I prefer to go without the gory stuff you could see in a lot of Jet Li's wire-fu and gangster movies. And then there is the really beautiful stuff in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero. We could go on, but I think these three broad categories of kung-fu violence are a good place to start: cartoony up to delightful, realistic up to gory, and fantastic up to beautiful.

The first and third cases are not exactly graphic. Maybe they desensitize people to violence in the long run, slowly wearing down one's defenses, like gateway drugs. Start with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (or GI Joe, or The Lone Ranger?), end with Kill Bill. I won't focus on this slippery slope. Some people really do stop at social drinking and other people stop at Jackie Chan. I'll also include Buffy and Angel somewhere on the slippery slope, because violence is certainly a theme, but it's just not that realistic. Or, you might say, the violence is less realistic than the characters and their stories and relationships.

I am more inclined to think of realistic, gory violence like one might see in a horror film, an action movie, a crime drama, a war movie, a historical or similar depictions as the broad class of graphic violence that Vince is advising against. So let's try to make a case against gratuitous graphic violence. One film that pops to mind is Bad Taste, a zombie movie featuring a dude with his braincase falling open, said brains being munched on by scavenger birds and zombies, ripping apart said zombies with a chainsaw. Ad nauseam. (Incidentally, the director/actor of this movie is Peter Jackson, the same guy who made that Lord of the Rings trilogy and got that Oscar sweep. True story.) And the argument would go, whatever redeeming content this movie has, the violence is essentially at right angles to it, and overwhelms, say, the story, script, direction, cinematography, costuming, and such.

By changing the example movie and exchanging the word "sex" for "violence", we will essentially arrive at the Supreme Court's argument about distinguishing obscenity from art, or more specifically, pornography from erotica. And the infamous line from that argument is "I'll know it when I see it", which is really no argument at all. The reason they had to say that was the definition of obscenity that they used: "prurient, patently offensive expression, lacking serious literary, artistic, political or scientific value." The Supreme Court couldn't define most of those words, so they had to substitute human instincts, or community standards, or an appeal to obviousness to make these judgments. If our goal were to judge violence in movies by this legal standard, we would have similar problems.

Here's that list of genres again: horror, action, crime, war, historical/realistic. Here is an example each from these genres, so you know what I'm thinking of as I write: Nightmare on Elm Street, True Lies, Law and Order (a TV show, not a movie), Saving Private Ryan, Black Robe. Looking at it again, I suppose this is a rough order of how high the bar should be to consider violence as having serious artistic or literary value. The case is hardest to make for horror, with its splatter and torment of innocents, playing the notes of fear and disgust in relentless, dissonant jangles. Action movies at least excuse their killings by portraying the victims as evil and concentrating on killing as heroics. Which of these two last is more pernicious is an exercise for the viewer. Crime dramas, though, have the potential to tell us about human psychology and engage our minds in a mystery. Depending on how dark the psychology, we may encounter more graphic violence. In war movies, violence is still more germane to the action. Historical or realistic portrayals of human behavior, and the capacity of humans to do violence to one another, are extremely important too, even as Vince mentioned.

But if that's so, where do you draw the line on violence? Can extremely graphic violence be excused by extremely artistic content? Or by extremely probing, meaningful human stories? Or by meditating on violence? Vince says no to the first. However amazing Kill Bill is as film-making art (I haven't seen it), that doesn't excuse the wanton, graphic violence, which Tarentino could have omitted, if he wanted to, just by making a different sort of movie. When violence is entwined inextricably with the story, though, or when violence is the story, what then?

For instance, was the violence in The Passion of the Christ gratuitous? I read some reviews saying it was overdone. I could see that. I cringed as I watched it, I felt numbed by it all. I found myself translating Latin numbers as the soldiers counted out the strokes of Jesus' flogging. (As an aside, I also do prime factorizations of the timestamp on the DVD player when I find myself looking away from a movie.)

On the other hand, although some of the incidents in the movie came from extra-biblical sources (such as the face of the Messiah on St. Veronica's handkerchief, or the sopping up of the blood by Mary and the other women), most if not all of the violence is right out of the Gospel narratives, and it's probably never been as completely depicted on film as it was there. Was there value in seeing that, value that I couldn't have gained by just watching the Jesus film (mostly Luke's gospel; this is the one that has been translated into almost a thousand languages) and letting my imagination do the work?

Just before Vince wrote, by chance, I saw another movie that put these issues in perspective for me. When I told Sarah about it, I said, "Well, it was really violent, but..." It's called Children of Men, and it just came out on DVD. It's the year 2027, and women mysteriously ceased to have children eighteen years previously, and the youngest people are now 18. So long without a cure for infertility, without children, and the world has descended into madness, despair, loss. It is a harsh, violent world. England is cracking down on illegal immigrants, sending them to camps. Revolutionaries rebel against the totalitarian government by blowing things up. A man makes his way through this world and kills when he thinks he must. The violence is very realistic, although it's more realistic as in war than as in gruesome gory details.

The movie is amazing. I can't help but highly recommend it. It's deep, it's poignant, it made me cry huge sobs near the end. It has a lot to say about children, and violence, and hope, and it's very well made. Of course, if you are deeply offended by realistic violent content, you'll have to steer clear. And that's the crux of the thing right there: how much violence are you willing to watch in the pursuit of these human moments, or otherwise redeeming content?

When I talked about obscenity, I mentioned that we'd run into major quandaries trying to judge the artistic value of movies to the precision of a legal standard. In America, we tend to rate more heavily against sexual content than violent content, or at least the ratings board of the Motion Picture Association of America does for us, but this is all very ad hoc and informal.

Suppose we want a higher standard than just legalities and broad cultural opinions. How does being a Christian play into these issues of adult content? I am no expert, so what follows is all me. The verse that comes to mind is Paul's "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things." There's an obvious interpretation of this verse (no doubt similar verses could be discovered) that suggest that Christians are to confine themselves to milquetoast art. All I can say about that particular interpretation is that I've tested it with my own life and found it wanting.

Vince's comment hints at the idea that there is such great non-violent art out there that I could spend a lifetime on the excellent and praiseworthy, without getting around to the violent and disgusting. And the work he points to, while excellent, is not just naive about human behavior. Silence, one of my favorite books, depicts the torture and martyrdom of Christians in feudal Japan, and tells the story of a priest's loss of faith and renunciation of Christ. The first time I read this book, it was like a bombshell going off in my newly-minted fundamentalism. I was drawn afterward, like the author, Shusaku Endo, to the worrisome cases, to depictions of sinners more than saints. Lurking underneath this is probably a connection to my relative tolerance of violence and inhumanity in literature and on the screen.

I find that it's hard to compromise on excellence in art, to censor that great emotional connection I make as a reader and viewer with the artist who created the work. Sometimes they will show me, horrified, things I might prefer not to see, but things they think are important for me to see. Shusaku Endo certainly goes that route in one of my other favorites, Scandal, probably the most affecting portrayal of evil I have ever read. I would certainly call it excellent and praiseworthy, but co-mingled with the story's beauty is a very real heart of darkness. Did God want me to go there? I say yes.

None of that is to say that I'm ignoring Vince's lists of great works (on the books, I actually have a generous head start). I want to see great stuff that's not also rated R. And I do avoid gratuitous violence on principle, as an offense to human dignity. But there's a big grey area in between that I haven't sussed out yet.

I guess I'll mention, last, that I too am a non-violent sort of person and I haven't had any need to create graphic violence in my little world. I imagine myself as a conscientious objector and hope I'd be brave enough to say no in the event that someone asked me to pick up a gun for my country, or design a better nuclear bomb.