Friday, December 24, 2010

They say you're a man with true grit...

Okay it’s been shamefully long since my last post but I promise that won’t happen again. This past semester was killer and now it’s over, praise the Lord! So now I can blog again and I begin my comeback with analyzing one of the best films of 2010, from those fabulous Coen Brothers, True Grit.

Their version of True Grit is not a remake of the old John Wayne film, but rather a book to movie adaptation of the novel. The film is fabulous in so many ways. The script is remarkably well-written with quick, sharp dialogue and intelligent humor. You have to really listen and engage. The editing is flawless, the cinematography simple and elegant and the acting… wow… there’s barely a word to describe it.


What I am going to be analyzing in this blog is a deeper layer of the film and its story. The character dynamic, for me, was one of the most interesting things about the film. Rooster (Jeff Bridges), Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld), and Labeouf (Matt Damon) all had great on-screen chemistry. Not only did they all do some of the best and most convincing acting of their careers, Hailee Steinfeld is a complete newcomer and she has blown the world away. She’s only 13 and she’s phenomenal!

My favorite was the particular dynamic between Mattie and Labeouf. Many other people who have analyzed the film and novel share with me the fact that there is an underlying romance between the two characters. Though she’s only 14, and he has to be almost 20 years older than her, in his mid 30s, that was not uncommon back in those days. (In Jane Austen’s Emma, Mr. Knightley is 16 years older than Emma, and it works splendidly). So while today it wouldn’t fly, and even then they’d have to wait for her to be “out” in society as a young woman or her coming of age, it’s really not that unusual of a concept.

This whole thing is displayed very subtly by the Coen brother’s direction, but the actor’s took that subtlety and made it powerful. It happens the instant you see Labeouf for the first time. He sits on the porch of the boarding house Mattie Ross is staying at while she gets things sorted with her father’s death. He sees her coming and puts his boots up on the porch rail, almost to show how “bad ass” he is, spurs and all. He says nothing, but he doesn’t need to, his costume is quite flamboyant enough to speak for itself. He’s a Texas Ranger and he’s letting the world know it with his dress. She looks at him quizzically, he lights his pipe and the match lights his face in the dark. Absolute cinematic perfection in character introduction, damn good writing. Already we know what kind of man he is: kind of a show off, but distinguished and even an air of class underneath the rough-neck.

The next morning after she sees him, they talk in her bedroom. He even shows her his ranger star in a rather masculine, showy kind of way. She is after Chaney (the man who killed her father played by Josh Brolin) and Labeouf happens to also be after him for different reasons. They have a conversation about it and begin to banter with creative insults due to a disagreement in how the situation should be handled. The chemistry is spot on. She really hits his nerve and he says something to the effect of “I thought of stealing a kiss from you, even though you’re young, and unattractive to boot.” He then goes on to tell her that since she’s a smart-mouthed kid she should get a spanking instead, she then replies that one is as bad as the other. Good one Mattie! haha it was great stuff.

(At one point he does end up spanking her or whoopin' her good, with both his gloved hand and a reed from the river, because she 'disrespected' him and Rooster. This is rather early on in the story, and though it wouldn’t have even been given a thought back in the old west, it may raise a few eyebrows nowadays haha.)

Anyway, the story goes on as Rooster, Labeouf and Mattie go searching for Chaney. The scenes involving these three are so wonderful, I loved every minute.

Mattie is convinced Rooster is the right man for this job because he’s the meanest, toughest Marshall around. The two of them form a friendly bond and share a likeness in many viewpoints and sense of humor. But Rooster has many down sides, chiefly that he’s often cold, indifferent about law and order, and also he drinks… A LOT.

Labeouf annoyed Mattie at first, and of course she resents him for the spanking incident, but as the story progresses, she sees how much of a man of honor he is and that though he looks like a rodeo clown, he really is a hero. He gives off the knight-in-shining-armor vibe, just in a crude cowboy sort of way. Labeouf’s morality is closer to her own, and she sees how she misjudged him. One of my favorite scenes is when Mattie tells LaBoeuf, with a gleaming, school-girl look in her eyes, that she chose the wrong man to go after her father's killer. He looks back with an undefined understanding and extends his hand for her to shake. This gesture really shows that he no longer considers her to be a girl, but an equal. He even tells her that he misjudged her too and that she’s “earned her spurs” but he stops himself before saying even more, even though his countenance may hint at a deeper longing.

They both show an eagerness to either impress or be concerned for each other throughout the film. She especially shows a very admiring concern for him in many scenes. He saves her life again before the end, however she gets bitten by a snake and they have to part ways before they can really even say goodbye. She even expresses to Rooster that she doesn’t want to leave Labeouf alone, but she desperately needs medical attention.

The end of the film is rather sad, but very realistic. Mattie never got married, she lost her arm due to the snake bite, and she has lived a very straight and narrow life. She only heard from Rooster a few times after that, but she never saw Labeouf again. It makes sense, but just because it works doesn’t mean it’s any less depressing haha.

Though it’s never blatantly said in the film, you can definitely feel through amazing acting performances and brilliant writing that there was a deeper connection between those two characters. I love when I can watch a film or read a book and come away with thoughts and musings about things like this. Though words are never spoken, I think Mattie Ross was in love with that lone Texas ranger Labeouf, and for wonderfully valid reasons. Maybe that’s why she never married, because no one else measured up, or because she didn’t want anyone else. We’ll never know, but it’s always fun to speculate. ;-)

Monday, June 28, 2010

"Prima Nocte" ~ Braveheart

This scene comes from what is possibly my favorite movie of all time, Braveheart. Oddly enough, even though the main characters are in this scene, it doesn't have anything to do with them, it's made beautiful by two complete "nobodies" in a sense.

I've labeled this post Prima Nocte, which is latin for First Night. Prima Nocte was a law instituted where English nobles and lords could have sexual rights to Scottish women on the night of their wedding. Basically taking the right from the husband and hopefully implanting "English seed" to weed out the population of the Scots. Now a lot of people have discrepancies over whether or not Prima Nocte actually happened historically. Some say yes, others say no, others like me say who cares? This movie is phenomenal. It tells the story of a man, William Wallace, who was real but also something of a legend. So it serves right that it would have some stretching of truth in the legend. The Prima Nocte idea served as a significant vessel for telling the story cinematically so whether or not it really happened, we must set that aside. Anyway...

The scene is in the first act of the film. William Wallace has returned to his home area in Scotland after 20 years of traveling Europe and studying with his Uncle Argyle. Once he's home, he stumbles upon a wedding where all of his old friends are in attendance; among them his best friend Hamish, and the woman he's loved since childhood, Murron. The party continues to celebrate with joy a young couple's union. It's lively and brightly decorated with flowers and all things in nature. The setting often reminded me of something ethereal, and the young women decked in ribbons and wreaths were like little fairies dancing barefoot in the grass. The music is spirited, Celtic tunes. Wallace can't stop staring at Murron and gets challenged by Hamish to some "Highland Games". Wallace wins.

In the midst of the celebration, the English guard come thundering in. The music dies and everyone stops in their tracks. Their leader demands his "noble right" of Prima Nocte with the bride. This causes an uproar from the men, particularly that of her new husband. The soldiers apprehend people before a riot can truly break out.

The bride. She is something to behold. She is simple in almost every way, and pretty but again in a very subtle way, Scottish girl-next-door kind of look. But Gibson in all his directing genius makes her light up the screen. She is wearing a drapey "dress". Her hair is amazing, a subtle, reddish hue, down with little braids throughout. A wreath of flowers and leaves crowns her head. Her make-up is beautiful. Her skin a lovely ivory with the lightest dusting of coral on her eyes and cheeks bringing out the "blushing bride" and giving her a youthful glow and fantastical, wood-sprite appearance.

The scene now mutes out all sound except the music and things slow down, but not exactly in typical slow motion. This really generates the sorrow of what is happening to this couple. She is held by a soldier, but in one swift, elegant move she breaks free. The soldier doesn't seem to fight for her on this. She commands the scene and those around her with her presence. I call this the power of "a gentle and quiet spirit". She walks over to the soldier holding her husband while another has a spear pointed at his throat. The music is harp and woodwinds, it quiets down the moment just as she quiets the fray around her. She lightly, deliberately touches the soldier holding him. This is one of my favorite parts, the soldier looks at her as she makes her way around, he looks surprised, almost entranced. His grip even loosens a bit as he is distracted. With great care, she then touches the spearhead the other soldier has pointed at him and slowly pushes it away from his throat, getting him out of danger.

She then tenderly puts her cheek to her beloveds and whispers "It's alright, everything will be alright..." (it's inaudible, I am just reading her lips). I might mention that as all this is happening, we are getting reaction from the crowd, from Murron a look of heartbreak, from Wallace a stern, inexplicable look, and from the others almost a sense of awe at what they are witnessing. The bride then kisses her husband in a way that can only be described as meaningful. She slowly opens her eyes and looks at him, backing away toward the English Lord on his horse. Her eyes never stop looking at him, and they say so much. They give hope in a most horrid situation. He looks back at her, shuddering at the thought that they are separated, and then she glances again, this time she does look frightened but maintains her composure. Her husband shakes the English guard holding him off his body. I love the look on his face at this part, not because of what has happened to him, but in just one look he shows exactly what a man ought to feel at a moment such as that: robbed, angry, worried, and devastated for his bride. It's all in just that short moment in his face. The bride rides away with the English and the party scatters.

I remember watching this when I was 14 and being just in awe. This movie made me cry in several places, but I remember feeling the intense power of this particular scene. It's one of the worst things anyone could imagine happening to themselves. To be robbed of the right to be given fully to your beloved, to be the prey of another who seeks you with malicious lust. For the bride who is to be violated, and the husband who has to be helpless in the fight for her. What a wretched prison to be stuck in! Mel Gibson is such a fantastic director, I could do at least 5 scenes from this movie alone to write blogs about, but I won't for variety sake. All I can say is I hope another movie is under way from him!

Monday, June 21, 2010

"El Tango de Roxanne" ~ Moulin Rouge

The first scene I chose to reflect on is the very scene that gave me the idea. It's kind of random, as I actually haven't watched this film in a while, but I was listening to the soundtrack and remembered just how amazing this particular scene was. It's "El Tango de Roxanne" from Moulin Rouge.

Just a little background on the film... Moulin Rouge is a film by Baz Lurman that was released in 2001. It's a bohemian musical that uses pieces of pop/rock songs from all over the musical map and timeline. From Elton John's "Your Song" to Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" it's easily the most eclectic musical of all time.

The film is very odd. I will admit the first time I watched it, I contemplated stopping within the first 10-15 mins because it starts out VERY weird. I am so glad I didn't! This movie was absolutely stunning on more levels than one. Even though it was weird, it had a story, and unbelievably tragic love story filled with some of the best production design I've ever seen. So about 15 minutes in, when Ewan McGregor begins to sing "Your Song" I totally dropped my remote and couldn't get enough of his lovely voice. The rest of it was fantastic, with the exception of the "Like a Virgin" scene which had me on the ground crying with laughter because it was so dumb.

But THE scene that nearly stopped my heart was "El Tango de Roxanne." The Argentinean performer leads a chorus of vocalists to sing a tango version of Sting and the Police's "Roxanne". It sounds impossible, but it was fantastic. At that point in the story, Christian (Ewan McGregor) has fallen madly in love with a courtesan (Nicole Kidman) named Satine and she with him. However, he isn't the only one who wants her. A wealthy duke who holds the money and power of running the Moulin Rouge and control over it's theatrical pieces lusts for her. He is a foul piece of work, but they know they need him to fund their work. She decides to seduce him one night to ensure that nothing happens to the work of the others in the Moulin Rouge by securing the Duke's attention and affection.

Obviously this does not settle well with Christian, nor does it with her, but they accept it as the last resort. "El Tango de Roxanne" takes place during the night of the seduction. It is intercuts between Satine's dinner with the duke, and Christian waiting patiently with the Moulin Rouge dancers and performers. The tension is mounting as Christian begins to realize his jealousy over Satine, and rightful jealousy too, as they love each other and she is forced to give herself to another.

The Argentinean performer, begins to illustrate to Christian how falling for a courtesan can only end badly. He does so by singing the tango song, which calls all the performers to dance a sensual tango illustrating the passion and desire of the situation. The famous line the Argentinean screams is "Jealousy will drive you... MAD!!!" and he's right.

I have always loved the tango. It's stunningly beautiful and full of passion. It's definitely not a dance for the casual couple. The scene begins with the tango, but done in a raw and sexual way, using it to demonstrate the power of lust and desire, and possession. These are the emotions the duke has for Satine. As the tango goes on with "Roxanne" as it's melody, Christian sings his own part, demonstrating a jealousy that isn't rooted in sex and lust, but in passion and the deepest of true love; what I would call a righteous jealousy. The contrast between Christian's angelic, almost wailing part against the Argentinean's rough and dirty vocals sets the stage perfectly for the difference between the two men and their feelings with Satine.

This goes even further as the intercuts of Satine and the Duke continue. The room they are in is very, very dark lit only by a couple of candles. Satine and the duke are both wearing black and dark colors. The lighting makes their skin look very pale and even corpselike, almost like the moon in the night sky. You get a very cold feeling from both the production design, and the acting. Christian however is very warmly lit, although also wearing black. His skin tone stays natural and warm. It's a very subtle tool to show you the difference between the two men and the affect they have on her.

Satine sees Christian outside the window about 2/3 of the way through the scene. Upon looking at him, she realizes that she can't pretend anymore and that she must stay true to Christian even if it means risking the material comforts and the ambitions of stardom, which were all she cared about when you first meet her in the film. This sets the duke off immediately, and the scene reaches an amazing climax. The duke in his anger attacks Satine, in the process of raping her as the song reaches an epic choral mix of all the singers and dancers. The emotion at this part just overflows, I thought it would come right off the screen itself! In essence it did, I was clinging to my bed-sheets if I remember correctly haha.

This scene is one of the best demonstrations of the power of jealousy I have ever seen, particularly male jealousy which is in my opinion way more consuming and ravenous than female jealousy. The director picked the perfect elements to construct it. He used the method of combining the gritty and the angelic, the pure and the lustful, and using arguably the most passionate dance around as a metaphor for the depths of these feelings and the root of jealousy and possession.

Moulin Rouge is definitely not for everyone, especially those who don't like musicals, but I would recommend it as a visual feast and a beautifully sad story for those it appeals to.

What is the Reel Cathedral?

Movies, television shows, webseries, music videos... these are all forms of video art.

The invention of the first motion-picture cameras and the establishment of the first film production companies happened in the 1890s. These films were under a minute long. Until 1927 films grew in length and production value, but still were made without sound. After World War II, televisions became a fixture in homes across the world, and ever since then using video has been one of the most compelling and widely reaching ways to tell a story and share a message.

Regardless of the common misconception, these methods of storytelling are not merely "mindless entertainment," but deeply intentional vessels of understanding and interpreting the human life, experience, and soul. Whether or not they are always quality or intelligent vessels is another debate altogether, but they all have something to say. From Gone with the Wind to Terminator to The Lion King all forms of moving picture art are conveying a message hoping to reach somewhere inside of each of us. Whether trying to make us laugh, cry, sway us politically, remind us of historical events, empathize with our victories and losses, moving pictures have the power to inspire human beings for better or worse.

The goal of Reel Cathedral is to explore and understand these stories and messages on a deeper, spiritual level. When Christ taught masses of people He more often than not told stories in parable form. This method of metaphorical teaching led directly to the root of what he was trying to say. This was not only a product of His Middle Eastern culture, but also a specific means of teaching His Word to the people in ways that would enable them to use their brain and the hearts to obtain wisdom and absorb truth.

It is my hope that you will open the eyes of your heart to view all forms of art on a deeper level. Don't just eat what  you're given, make sure you know where your food is coming from and what's in it. Reel Cathedral is about viewing video art intentionally and meditatively to experience the heart of the stories and distinguish between those that enrich our lives and those that do not.

I am certainly not the first to attempt this and greatly hope I will not be the last. I encourage you to check out sites like Cinemagogue and Reel World Theology as well. The more we can fellowship on this together, the stronger and more unified we will be. 

Many blessings,

Alexis P. Johnson