Saturday, July 19, 2003

LIGHTS, CAMERA, MARXISM!

There was an article in Last Sunday's L.A. Times that is garnering a lot of buzz here in Hollywood. Written by David Weddle, the piece lambasts film theory programs in many universities as being (in Roger Ebert's words), "a cruel hoax for students, essentially the academic equivalent of a New Age cult, in which a new language has been invented in which only the adept can communicate."

You have to register to read the whole article. I recommend going to the trouble, especially if you have any kids or young friends who are contemplating plunking down $30,000-$120,000 for film school.

Weddle describes examining one of his daughter's textbooks. His daughter, a student at UC-Santa Barbara, happens to be enrolled at one of the most radicalized film study programs in the U.S., but reading the article, her experience was not too far from my own at Northwestern University, "the heartland Ivy League school."


The prose was denser than a Kevlar flak jacket, full of such words as "diegetic," "heterogeneity," "narratology," "narrativity," "symptomology," "scopophilia," "signifier," "syntagmatic," "synecdoche," "temporality." I picked out two of them‹"fabula" and "syuzhet"‹and asked Alexis if she knew what they meant. "They're the Russian Formalist terms for 'story' and 'plot,' " she replied.

"Well then, why don't they use 'story' and 'plot?' "

"We're not allowed to. If we do, they take points off our paper. We have to use 'fabula' and 'syuzhet.' "


Weddle goes on in the article to be amazed at the fanatical dogmatism of the film criticism professors in his daughters Department at UCSB. (Where has this guy been for the last thirty years?! It is always funny when a liberal finally starts to see the oppressiveness and errors of long cherished theories. It's as hard as admitting your own child is, well, a rotter.) This is my favorite citation from the article, because it reveals a latent bigotry against conservatives which keeps the writers from having a keen sense of the obvious as to the problems in their creed, such that they could completely abandon it.

From Kevin Brownlow, the world's leading silent movie historian, author of "The Parade's Gone By . . .," and co-producer, with David Gill, of acclaimed documentaries: "You would think, from this closed-circuit attitude to teaching, that such academics would be politically right wing. For it is a kind of fascism to force people practicing one discipline to learn the language of another, simply for the convenience of an intellectual elite. It's like expecting Slavs to learn German in order to comprehend their own inferiority. But they are not right wing. They are, regrettably, usually left wing‹quite aggressively Marxist‹which makes the whole situation even more alarming."

I found this article to be DEAD ON in terms of my own experience in graduate studies in film at Northwestern. My professors were either proudly out Marxists, or else, closeted fearful non-Marxists who didn't dare raise their voices in dissent against the raging of the Party faithful in the department. Few of our professors had any real experience in the commercial film industry. In fact, they loudly derided and disdained Hollywood as being a capitalist tool of oppression. And believe me, they weren't bemoaning the excesses of graphic sex and violence in the biz. One of my professors told me she had to be very careful talking about her past, because she had actually made a living in the business at one time, and her colleagues considered her, therefore, a sell-out to capitalist oppression.

We were required to take one of two film theory tracks, our options being either a) Queer Theory, or b) Feminist Film Theory. I took the latter and then had to sit through a whole quarter of absolute propaganda garbage in which our lesbian/feminist professor wailed against patriarchal power-brokers in Hollywood ad nauseum infinitum. She kept referring to herself as part of the proletariat. (Hmmmm...I used to think. You are probably making more than any two hundred Russian peasants who were oppressed by the Tsar...) We had to study the work of any one of a small group of minor female film directors -- not because of their contributions to the art form, but JUST BECAUSE they were women. We had to watch film after film made by famous male directors, looking for anti-women patriarchal , oppressive "coding.'

I remember that we spent nearly a month watching the mind-numbing colorless drudgery of Soviet montage cinema, but only one day on the work of D.W. Griffith, the "Father of Cinematic Technique." I got a B in that class, because I actually challenged my professor one day. "If Soviet cinema was so great, than why did Stalin used to ship in Hollywood movies to watch in his private screening room?' The professor sputtered with rage something about Stalin taking on the burdens of his people by subjecting himself to the evils of Hollywoodism. Yeah, right, Mack.

I remember being amazed at how, day after day, our professors managed to get whatever the topic of the class was around to Marxist rhetoric and anti-religious/anti-capitalist/anti-American railing. The funniest was on Day One of our research studies class with one professor, who was a particularly frustrated Marxist whose life seemed to be a tortured rationalization of his own very non-proletariat salary. Dr. "Call Me Jim because PhD's are just Part of Bourgeois Power Structures" was giving us a tour of the stacks when he all of a sudden turned on us, a group of twenty-something kids mostly from upper-class backgounds or else the intellectual top percent of their highschools of colleges.

"How many of you have ever even raided a library?! Huh!!! How many of you have ever even been arrested in a protest?! What is wrong with you people???!!"

I could write a book about some of the stuff we had to put up with just to get a degree. But maybe I don't have to as Mr. Weddle has done it already here.

Sunday, July 13, 2003

"So that was Mrs. Lundegaard in there? And I guess
that was your accomplice in the wood chipper.
And those three people in Brainerd.
And for what? For a little bit of money.
There's more to life than money, you know.
Don't you know that? And here you are,
and it's a beautiful day. Well, I just don't
understand it."
from Fargo




REVIEW: DISNEY'S PIRATES STAYS AFLOAT

Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl is much better than I expected. In an industry in which movies that have "swords and sandals" are generally panned, this film keeps its head above water with both a good story and one outstanding performance by the exceedingly talented Johnny Depp. Depp plays his Captain Jack Sparrow with a slightly off-balance quirky swagger that is pure fun to watch.

The story here is also much better than projects of this sort tend to be. It holds together well, keeps moving and has a nice little twist at the end. Along the way, there are a lot of tongue and cheek swashbuckling moments that keep subverting the traditional formulas. The production values are high and the characterizations are well-conceived and executed. As a bonus, there is no profanity or crassness or nudity or sex in the project. The violence is about the same as you find in any Errol Flynn swashbuckler.

I was ready to hate this movie as an example of Disney's shameless self-promotion. The movie is derived from the Disney theme park ride of the same name, and it seemed to me that any movie based on a three minute attraction couldn't have a lot to it. I was wrong. They have done a good job, and have created a movie that is genuine family fun.

In what may end up revealing a total dearth of new ideas, however, Disney also has a movie in production that is based on the Haunted Mansion attraction at Disneyland. Not sure wheher they are intending to create a whole new genre here - but if anyone from Disney is paying attention, I would avoid any pitches you about dramatizing the Tikki, tikki, tikki, tikki, tikki Room. Unless it's like, a horror film.

Friday, July 11, 2003

BLOGGING PROSPECTUS AND LIFE SINCE THE PASSION

We are just at the end of our first week of the Act One 2003 summer program. We have thirty-one wonderful new students and a really packed schedule which doesn't let up until August 2. I won't have a whole lot of time to blog while the program is unfolding. Please do keep the students, faculty, mentors and program staff in your prayers.

After Act One wraps, I head to New England for a week of brooding with a group of Catholic artists about what an ideal Catholic university arts curriculum would look like. I'm bringing my parents along, so it should be nearly heaven - New England, arts theory discussions with a group of very cool people, and Mom and Dad!

After New England, I am off to Korea for a week or so. I'm consulting on a children's animated project called Antenna Adventures. Being produced by Santa Fe Communications of Milwaukee, WI, the series is very cute and funny - and is rooted in Biblical themes.

I'll be back in L.A. sometime around the third week of August. So, blogging over the next two months will be sporadic at best.

Actually, I am really just fleeing from the hundreds of people who have been contacting me in the last two weeks to set them up in a meeting with Mel Gibson, or to pass on to him books, resumes, musical scores, and other odd personal artifacts. One screening of The Passion and suddenly every Catholic or Christian group wants me to deliver the star for their local carnival. Good grief. Clearly, there is a reason Icon Productions doesn't post their address on their web site. If any of you reading this are tempted to ask me to set up an interview for you, please save yourself the effort. I am not a publicist. I am a writer. I am not Mel's friend. I met him once. I will probably never see him again. So please, stop sending me things to give him.

I really hate this celebrity stuff, especially among the People of God. We all need to reflect on the words, "You know how it is among the pagans, how their great ones lord it over them. IT CANNOT BE THAT WAY WITH YOU."
T-3: SETTING UP AHNOLD, T-4, AND THE AUDIENCE

Terminator 3 would be better titled, "Acts One and Two of Terminator Three." The film isn't bad, it's just all set up for the next film. Action in the first hour could easily have been condensed into about half the time. The studio clearly didn't want to speed things up because they are counting on getting two movies out of one story. The film leaves us about where the mid-point of a good movie would have left us - with a new Adam and Eve waiting out the Apocalypse in a 1950's bomb shelter.

My sense is, this film is all part of Arnold's pre-political campaign. Arnold has all the laughs in the film, and he still looks buff in leather. If the film had tanked, chances are his political ambitions would too. It didn't tank. When Arnold as Terminator puts on his very cool designer sunglasses as a precursor to, saving the human race, theater goers could almost hear the sub-text, "There's another one Gray Davis can try."

Ultimately, the audience is the ultimate victim of the set-ups. But, T-3 is a fun enough visual romp that you won't mind too much.

Monday, June 30, 2003

"Millions of books written on every
conceivable subject by all these
great minds, and, and in the end,
none of 'em knows anything more
about the big questions of life
than I do. ... Nietzsche with his, with
his Theory of Eternal Recurrence.
He said that the life we live,
we're gonna live over and over
again the exact same way for
eternity. Great. That means I,
uh, I'll have to sit through the
Ice Capades again. Tch. It's not
worth it.
from Hannah and Her Sisters
THE STUFF OF REAL CONTROVERSY?

Columbia Pictures has acquired The Da Vinci Code for a seven-figure sum. Describing writer Dan Brown as a "master Storyteller" Sony Pictures Entertainment chairman, John Calley notes that they "can't wait to bring this puzzle to the screen."

The real puzzle is how come a book that is known to be virulently anti-Catholic can be acquired without a peep of indignation from the people who have been overflowing with horror about how some supposed scenes in The Passion may possibly be contorted by some twisted wackos somewhere into a validation of anti-Semitism? There is nothing subtle about the bigotry in The Da Vinci Code. It's just badly researched, offensive hate-blather which uses Christians as its object.

I try very hard to get my fellow Christians to give Hollywood a break, but then, damnit, one of the studios goes off and does something indefensible like this.

Friday, June 27, 2003

PROTESTANTS LIKE IT TOO!

Focus on the Family leaders got a screening of The Passion. They sound enthusiastic. I was a little worried how they would react because the film is so very graphic in its depiction of the violence inflicted on Jesus. But, I'm glad to see they are letting a work of art be a work of art.

“It conveys, more accurately than any other film, who Jesus was,” Ted Haggard said based on clips he viewed at New Life. “You can’t help but be upset when you realize the gravity of what Jesus went through.”

“I was very impressed,” said Don Hodel, president of Focus on the Family. “It’s certainly the most powerful portrayal of the passion I’ve ever seen or heard about. The movie is historically and theologically accurate.”

Thursday, June 26, 2003

MORE PASSION

I said I would answer questions about my comments on the screening. I will not enter into the frenzied trap of trying to convince people that the Gospel is not anti-Semitic. Nor will I address the specific list of depictions that someone has decided would render the film anti-Semitic. It wouldn't prove anything.

The film is not anti-Semitic. It is beautiful. Think how insane it is to be condemning something without any experience of it. It is absurd and frivolous. No one will even remember this discussion once the film is released. And I only enter into conversations that have the possibility of being thoroughly memorable... But if some of you want to look really foolish, keep on keeping on with the sniping in the darkness.

From the Comments....

Did you discuss problems with getting a distribution company with them? Do you know the status?
No, we didn't discuss this. I don't know the status.

... you mentioned subtitles. Was he ever serious about not having them?
I don't know if Mel was ever serious about not having any sub-titles. If he was, he has moved beyond that now. The version I saw actually had too many sub-titles. We don't need distracting translations flashing on tthe screen when the Roman soldiers are saying obvious things like, "Hey, you, move!" Mel, noted that they were going to eliminate some of the sub-titles in future edits.

And, what was Jim Caviezel like as Jesus compared to, say, Robert Powell in Jesus of Nazareth (the standard for actors, I'd imagine)?
It's hard to answer this. This movie is completely other. I would say that Powell was great in Jesus of Nazareth, and Jim is great in The Passion. It's not really about performance. He embodies the role in a way that makes discussions of performance feel inappropriate.

does the film end with the Resurrection?
I'm going to say wait and see. It is really the only possible suspense left to the filmmaker isn't it? Because we all know what happens on Good Friday. I think it would be ungrateful of me to put this out there. Someone will probably leak it in the next nine months. It won't be me.

I SAW THE PASSION

So I was at a private screening at Icon Productions yesterday, and got to see a rough cut of The Passion. There were about twelve people in the room, including Mel Gibson, his producing partner Steve and four or five other Icon staffers. After the screening, we talked to Mel and friends for about an hour. (As cool as that was, the quality of the film was such that the celebrity stuff was completely gone from the moment. I can't explain it really, except that it would be like standing in the Sistine Chapel next to, well, someone like Mel Gibson. Great art is a great leveler....) The rough cut we saw obviously didn't have the final score or special effects, and there were many more sub-titles than they will have in the finished film.

So, here's my take...

The Passion is a stunning work of art. It is a devout, act of worship from Mel and his collaborators - in the way that Handel's Messiah and Notre Dame were artistic acts of worship in previous times.

Let's get the controversy out of the way right at the top. The film is faithful to the Gospel, particularly St. John. It is no more anti-Semitic than is the Gospel. There are at least two members of the Sanhedrin who come forward to protest on Jesus' behalf during the sham trial. The Romans are just as guilty of cruelty and hatred against Jesus in the film. And best of all is a final look right into the camera of Mary, holding her dead Son. She is looking at all of us with a kind of , "Look what you've done"/This is for you" expression. A cinematic Pieta worthy of Michelangelo.

Having seen the film now, I can only marvel that the attacks are pretty much demonic. Hopefully, the devil will end up spitefully biting his own tail on this one-- as he does in The Passion by inciting on the executioners of Christ, and thus being complicit in his own ultimate defeat. The Passion is high art. It is the greatest movie about Jesus ever made. In the discussion following the film, Mel and co. were asking us how mainstream theater audiences would react to the film. I told them, "Who cares? What you have here is so much more than just a product to sell. It will live forever, regardless of whether it is a commercial success for you or not."

For those of us who love Jesus, The Passion is devastating to watch. It is so good, I almost couldn't stand it. There is one moment on the way of the cross sequence, in which the whole tragedy unfolding devolves into a vicious riot of hatred between Romans and Jews with the Savior on the ground in the middle of it getting it from both sides. It was so frenzied and terrible, I wanted to run from the room. But then, the film again finds Mary, Jesus's Mother on the sidelines, and her presence gets us through it. Kind of like how Mary's presence helped Jesus get through it, it seemed to me.

The film is lovingly Marian. Mary is perfectly portrayed here. She is contrasted repeatedly with the really super creepy Satan character, who is also a woman (something for the feminist theologians here? heh heh...).

The film is strongly Eucharistic. There is a beautiful juxtaposition of images that cuts from the stripping on Calvary to the unwrapping of the bread to be used at the last Supper. Fabulous stuff.

Every Christian needs to see this film at least once. Just to remember, in our current comfort zones while evil is closing in, the price that was paid for us. On my way home from the screening, I found myself praying in the car, "Jesus, I'm so sorry, I forgot..." How many films have led you to compunction lately? The Passion is a miracle.

I'll take questions...

Tuesday, June 24, 2003

"You are so beautiful, are you sure you weren't
altered? This is not the face, the body, of
a Godchild. How could something so lovely
be a product of chance?"

from Gattaca

Monday, June 23, 2003

MOVIE REVIEW

So, yesterday our usual group of young L.A. Catholic Hollywood people met at our beloved St. Charles Borromeo Church in North Hollywood for the 10am Mass as usual. The choir was all geared up for Corpus Christi and sang a fabulous high Latin Mass and then Panis Angelicus and Ave Verum. Our choir director used to head up the L.A. Master Chorale, so we have like, the most incredible music on the planet every week. But then we had the sad news that the choir is taking the summer off, so no more fabulous music to make the lukewarm preaching bearable.

After Mass, we all went to breakfast as is our custom. We laughed and ate and argued about movies and television for a couple of hours. We hung around media center in Burbank for a few hours and then broke up. I came back home and read a few bad screenplays and then changed the sheets on my bed. My friend called in the late afternoon and we went for a walk. We had Pad Thai for dinner. It was a pretty good day.

Oh, and I saw The Hulk too.
BONNIE HUNT IS VERY COOL

Everybody should watch Life with Bonnie on Tuesday nights on ABC. Bonnie is super - very funny, smart and, oh yeah, Catholic. She made a great little film a couple of years ago called Return to Me. It's a wonderful romantic comedy with some deep themes of faith and family. Somebody just sent me the following quote from Bonnie about Return to Me. It's vintage Bonnie.

Forget the heart-transplant issue in the movie. There are a lot of women out there who are sexually inexperienced at that age, women who aren't necessarily having sex at 16 or 20. I feel they are under-represented in films, and I wish I could take out the heart-transplant part so I wouldn't have to justify her life.

Women feel they're either part of the group or not, and it's a really lonely thing when you're not, especially when you're a young girl going to see movies. I went through that. You think everyone else has these incredible romances when they're 15 years old and are in love. You think, 'What's wrong with me?' So it was nice to have a woman in her 20s who didn't know what the heck to do. (Film Vol 21 4/5/00)


Bonnie will be one of our guest speakers at Act One next month. Yes, the program is that cool...