Ad Astra (2019)

James Gray’s contemplative Ad Astra opens with a shot panning through the darkness. As the sun comes into view, the light refracts in circles across the image, eventually revealing the face of Roy McBride (Pitt) looking out at the glowing orb. McBride is actually on his way to work on the International Space Antenna, a towering structure designed to seek out intelligent life beyond the confines of earth. However, an unexplained power surge forces McBride to abandon his post on the exterior of the antenna. He drops into freefall, tens of thousands of feet above the ground.

The star man falls to earth.

 In one way, the entire film unfolds in this opening scene, its themes layered into the action. Gray’s film is wrestling with a simple, albeit profound, question: what does it mean to be human? Roy McBride’s journey is one of discovery, but the discovery is less about experiencing long distance space flight or blasting through the rings of Neptune and more about who he is (and will be). The film’s answer: we are fundamentally emotional and relational beings, not self-sufficient, but made for love.

 Gray’s film follows McBride’s fall from the heights of brilliant-but-cold-astronaut, a man whose sole focus is pointed upward, to the stars. The film highlights a fundamental disjunction in Roy—great at work, awful with relationships. He’s always calm—his heart rate never going above 80—but this leaves him distant from common human emotions. When catastrophe strikes at work, he stays focused on the task at hand. But relationally, it means he’s unphased when his wife leaves him. And in the most striking moment, Roy declares that he relies only on himself, something that makes him excellent in a difficult spacewalk, but which would destroy a marriage. Gray further highlights this disjunction by showing Roy making the right decisions in space, yet keeping most of his dialogue internalized—he’s either talking to a computer or to himself.

Over the course of the film, McBride hurtles toward a reality which reveals these relational limitations as a cauldron of emotion that has been simmering just beneath his placid, low-heart-rate surface begins to bubble up. Indeed, Roy’s trajectory in the film is a fall from detached, godlike status in the astronaut community toward something more truly and robustly human (and, frankly, more akin to true deity, but that’s another issue).

The contrast between Roy and other characters also highlights the importance of relationality and love. Clifford McBride’s old friend, Thomas Pruitt, remains dissatisfied (and ill, to boot), because his friendship with Clifford ended with a quarrel. Others express love through religious faith, offering prayers at key moments. These people (primarily the crew on the ship from Mars) also have natural relationships with each other, even if they seem fearful or judgmental of others, or a bit too tied to the rules. Roy seems to float above all of this emotion and relationality. His life is himself. This self-sufficiency is Roy’s defining quality, and the script from Gray and co-writer Ethan Gross interrogate this approach to life at almost every turn.

What inspires Roy’s fall into humanity? In short, reconnecting with his father, Clifford, a man who has been absent from Roy’s life for about three decades. Upon hearing the news that he would need to reach out to his father’s supposedly lost ship, Roy’s immediate reaction is to grapple with pressing regrets. He starts to message an apology to his wife (which he deletes without sending). After further reflection, including watching old video of his father, and a traumatic experience on the way to Mars, Roy admits to vast stores of rage simmering beneath his placid surface. The latent emotion within him continues to bubble up, and after a disorienting and isolating two-and-a-half-month journey from Mars to Neptune, a journey away from the only star and light in our solar system and into the darkness, Roy begins to yearn for others.

 When Roy reaches his father, we realize how much Clifford’s journey has changed him. In an early recorded message from Clifford’s journey to Neptune, he told his teenaged son that he could sense God’s presence as they had passed Jupiter. And yet, by the time Roy reaches his father, any faith the man had has been swallowed up in reams of data that have found no signs of intelligent life. At one point, Clifford declares that we are all alone—it’s as if his faith has always been tied to the hope of finding some kind of concrete evidence for the divine. When the numbers didn’t cooperate, his faith faltered.

 Roy has also changed, but in a strikingly different way. First, when his father tells him that he never loved him, Roy’s response is, with tears in his eyes, “I know, Dad. I love you anyway.” This is the first time we’ve seen this man make such a declaration to anyone or show any emotion to anyone, which is strange given the long journey he’s been on (most of us would share a hug or phone call with someone before we left). But second, when Clifford notes that the data points to their solitude in the universe, Roy answers with, “We’re all we’ve got.” There’s some ambiguity here, for sure. On the one hand, Roy’s words acknowledge the vital importance of relationships, a major change for him. On the other, the statement could be a declaration of unbelief—a kind of dismissal of the theological that he was likely raised with. However, he could simply be saying that a person doesn’t need scientific, observable and repeatable evidence of intelligent life beyond humanity (e.g. aliens) in order to believe. Maybe Clifford’s faith has actually been tied to the wrong things. Maybe his faith needed to be tied to the people—to the faces—of those in his life.

Once Roy parts from his father for the last time, he reflects on the data his father did collect. Gray offers us images of numerous planets, strange and unknown worlds. And as Roy describes them, he contrasts his father’s despair with these images of beauty, images that inspire “awe and wonder.” Rather than looking for God only in the things we don’t have, Clifford should have seen him all around, including in the face of his own son.

Gray ends the film with Roy eagerly anticipating his return to earth, and offers a voice over of another psych evaluation once he returns. The wording is almost the same as the one that opens the film. However, where in the first Roy made his independence clear, in the last he says exactly the opposite, depending on a close circle of family and friends, while making plans to “live and love.” All the while, Roy sits in a coffee shop, stirring his coffee, and then turns to see his ex-wife coming to meet him. The star-man has fallen into relationship with another human. He sees her face. He is learning what it means to love.

The final word of the film is “submit” as Roy sends the message, where it becomes something of a call to action, for there is no relationship, no love, without a willingness to submit ourselves to another.

A Hidden Life (2019)

“To lower oneself is to rise in the domain of moral gravity. Moral gravity makes us fall toward the heights.” –Simone Weil

Terrence Malick’s breathtaking new film, A Hidden Life, traces the later years of Austrian peasant farmer and devout Catholic, Franz Jägerstätter. In 1943, when the Austrian army called Franz from his village of St. Radegund to serve in the German war effort, Franz refused on the grounds that he could not swear an oath of loyalty to Hitler. This led, eventually, to his imprisonment and execution. Franz’s wife, Fani, also suffered in numerous ways—the loss of her husband and the father of her children, the scorn of most of her neighbors, and the questions and doubts that encroached upon her faith.

One of the most surprising and gratifying moves Malick makes with this “hagiography” is the strong and virtually equal presence of Fani in what has ostensibly been framed by many as Franz’s story. Where a lesser filmmaker may have been tempted to place the focus solely on Franz (who has been beatified by the Roman Catholic Church), Malick understands that one cannot properly understand the nature of Franz’s sacrifice without also seeing the equally significant sacrifice of Fani. The mark she leaves on the film is so strong that I even wondered whether she, rather than Franz, was the hidden life referred to in the film’s title (a striking reference to the conclusion of George Eliot’s magnificent Middlemarch). Of the two, she remains the one most hidden to the rest of the world, but her story of persevering faith in the midst of profound trials stands every bit as tall as Franz’s.*

Given the strong marital relationship at the center of this film, along with the dual paths of suffering that Franz and Fani follow, I am tempted to suggest an alternative title in the spirit of Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterful The Passion of Joan of Arc: ‘The Passions of Franz and Fani of Radegund.’

An early scene that takes place in the village church portrays a conversation between Franz and an artist restoring some of the building’s artwork. Their conversation turns to the act of painting Christ, a task the artist frankly admits is beyond his capability. He believes he is too comfortable to truly understand (and therefore reflect) anything like the reality of Christ in his art. The whole scene comes across as something of a commentary on the film (and a call out to his next one, reportedly a rendering of the Jesus story?), as Malick portrays two distinct but linked passion narratives, reaching for the truth in the midst of the sacrifice.

This dual suffering of Franz and Fani is where the film cuts most deeply. On the one hand, Franz’s narrative portrays a man who, though he struggles at times, has pointed himself toward righteousness and means to carry that out, no matter the cost. Fani, on the other hand, is much more expressive in her struggle, her words often directly questioning God, even as she quotes Scripture. Her rendering of the simple tasks and events of her life take on a questioning character—simple joys of presence with her daughters or the blessing of a harvest become weighty trials in the wake of Franz’s absence. The film’s honesty about the realities of evil amidst and within the life of faith, that the follower of Jesus should expect suffering to follow, is probably its most poignant contribution.

I began this piece with a citation from Simone Weil. Franz and Fani lower themselves, resisting the temptation to dwell in a compromised safety even if there are some really good, non-Hitler-y reasons to take that road. But in that lowering, they attain a moral (and spiritual) gravity. As they persevere in their profoundly Christian responses to evil, they fall toward the heights.

* That the film includes a dedication to Malick’s wife, Alexandra, only strengthens this impression for me. I would also point out that Malick does here something very similar to what he did in To the Wonder, which we might now call his “other marriage movie.” In that 2012 effort, Malick turns his attention almost exclusively upon the women of the story—a wife and a mistress—leaving the husband/boyfriend character played by Ben Affleck virtually silent by comparison.

The Rider (2018)

Chloe Zhao’s The Rider unfolds as a film filled with tensions: history vs. the present, disability vs. wholeness, human vs. animal, isolation vs. connection. The film follows Brady Blackburn (Brady Jandreau), a young, twenty-something horse trainer and rodeo rider who has recently suffered a serious head wound. Independent to a fault, Brady has checked himself out of the hospital, hoping sheer will and grit will get him back into the rodeo ring as quickly as possible.

Ms. Zhao highlights the film’s thematic tensions by working with a strong contrastive visual sense. While much of the film is shot in interior close ups, with characters in the frame isolated from one another and the world, Ms. Zhao incorporates a number of exterior wide shots that situate her characters within their respective environments—or just show us the landscape itself. This sense of contrast continues to force us to break out of thinking just about Brady and his interior world. These wide exterior shots serve the purpose of reminding us that Brady’s world isn’t just what is in his head, but what is all around him as well.

That the film follows a young Lakota Sioux man places it in a particular historical and cultural context that is important for the film’s narrative. One of the great tragedies of American expansion was the loss of the prairie for the native Americans. Once the Europeans had settled and marked off the great plains, the natives were left without their livelihood and forced to find new ways of being in the world. This adaptation was profoundly difficult for a whole host of reasons (only some of them internal to the tribes), and it left these tribal communities in a far weaker state than they had been. Brady’s story mirrors this American tragedy, as the young cowboy loses his livelihood and is forced to adjust on the fly, with no resources and very little guidance.

To this point in his life, Brady seems to have situated himself on or in close proximity to a horse. There really has been nothing else for him. However, his injury begins to create obstacles to that vision of himself as a cowboy. His suffering with a form of seizures that force his fist to clench around anything in his hand (including the reins for his horse) only serves to indicate the difficulty Brady will have in letting go of his cowboy life.

Brady is in a precarious position. His injury has brought limitation to him for the first time in his life. He wants desperately to be whole again so he can continue pursuing his purpose. However, wholeness remains an elusive goal. Brady’s situation carries with it a sense of universality, in the sense that we all have our moments of reckoning with our limitations. This is part of what it means to be a finite human in a broken world.

Brady reflects on this brokenness in the context of the animals he loves so dearly. When a horse is injured to the point it cannot do what it was made to do, we put it out of its misery. Not the same with human beings. We are different. Though we might wish for death in our lowest moments, we realize that life continues to beckon, even if what is ahead remains a deep, dark mystery to us.

Into this reckoning of life and purpose, Ms. Zhao incorporates the character of Lane Scott, a rodeo rider and friend of Brady’s who has been gravely injured sometime prior to the film’s opening. Brady says early in the film that he hadn’t visited Lane in quite some time, because he’d been busy on the rodeo circuit. The contrast with the rest of the film is both striking and productive for thinking about the critical way the Brady/Lane scenes inform what’s going on with Brady. Brady’s visits with Lane form the foundation from which Brady will decide whether to turn inward and continue to rely simply on himself, or whether he will reach out for connection with others. Ms. Zhao’s concluding scene brings these themes together in a profound way, lighting the way to a better way of being in the world.

Favorite Films of 2017, Part II

It’s two months into 2018, which means it’s time for me to compile my top films from the previous year. With the Oscars right around the corner, this seems as good a time as any to roll out the list.

I already offered up #10 through #6. On to the top five.

5. While I am quite fond of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, this film’s treatment of race feels even more subversive as its dazzling technique at first masks then reveals its pointed thesis on race in American culture: being white means possessing the ability to take advantage of societal good will, while being black means being associated with crime or lack or sexual promiscuity. Good Time (dir. Safdie) accomplishes its purpose by following 24 hours in the life of two (white) brothers, one of whom is seeking to get the other out of jail. This film moves, its frenetic pace buffeted only by a couple of emotional scenes that bookend the film.

Good-Time

4. In The Lost City of Z (dir. Gray), James Gray manages to provide both a sense of adventure as well as an intensely personal statement about longing for something more than this world offers. This film is about appreciating mystery, about searching elsewhere for what we need here, and about our reach needing to exceed our grasp. But even as we might be carried away by such flights and explorations, Gray roots us in the real world of loss, sacrifice, and failure. Gray’s film lives in the midst of a tension, between “this city” and “the city yet to be discovered.”

lost city

3. Phantom Thread (dir. Anderson) finds director P.T. Anderson exploring 1950s London fashion scene, through the experiences of Reynolds Woodcock, a designer of high quality (and even higher-priced) dresses for the elite women of Europe. The lead character prefers his world tightly controlled, and his women more so. When his newest love interest, Alma, moves into the house, a battle of wills commences, as the couple seeks an elusive but glorious reality—artistic achievement in communion with relational satisfaction—which we come to discover carries its own dark underbelly.

Phantom_Thread

2. In Lady Bird (dir. Gerwig), the easy (and, at times, abrupt) movement between comedy and heartbreak mirrors the life of a teenager well, while Gerwig’s script creates a sense of groundedness–both in place (Sacramento, CA), and in its attachment to wisdom as well. The Catholic elements add a sense of depth and transcendence to the proceedings as Lady Bird learns something of what it means to mature personally and to love others–namely, to offer others the gift of attentiveness.

lady bird

1. The Unknown Girl (dir: Dardennes) follows a young doctor, Jenny, as she plies her trade in a low-income neighborhood. But when a murder happens very near her office, everything changes. By staging the doctor as something of a community priest, the Dardennes are able to access more directly something that has undergirded all their fiction films: the humanity and dignity of all people. Jenny affirms her neighbors by caring for their needs, tending their wounds, and even hearing their confessions. The brilliant final shot provides a downright incarnational vision for humanity that I won’t soon forget.

unknown girl

Favorite Films of 2017, Part I

It’s two months into 2018, which means it’s time for me to compile my top films from the previous year. With the Oscars coming up this weekend, this seems as good a time as any to roll out the list.

2017 was a strong year at the movies, especially suggested by the presence of certain excellent films just outside my favorite ten, such as Personal Shopper, Olivier Assayas’ meditation on materialism and spirituality; Get Out, Jordan Peele’s comedic horror film that brilliantly portrays what it means to be other as a person of color; and Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, an unvarnished, humanist portrayal of poor people living in the shadows of Disneyworld.

On to numbers 10 through 6.

10. The Work (dir. Aldous/McCleary) traces a long weekend in the life of civilians and prisoners in the midst of an intense group therapy session inside the walls of Folsom prison. The film’s portrayal of “The Work” humanizes both the prisoners and the civilians, as empathy gradually develops among the men in the group. It is in and through this process of knowing and being known that a glimmer of hope awakens: Hope that we might resist easy narratives about prisoners and civilians; hope that life might flourish in dark places; and hope that we might truly see someone outside ourselves, and that in seeing, we will understand better what love truly means.

work

9. Set in Kabul at the height of the Taliban’s power, The Breadwinner (dir. Twomey) shows us what life is like for both males and females in a sexist, misogynist, and unjust society. That it is able to do this through the eyes of a single character, an 11-year old girl forced to cut her hair and pose as a boy just so she can buy food for her family, is a testament to the strength of the original story, in addition to the adaptation by the filmmakers. The profound sense of injustice is palpable, though Twomey wisely keeps the most shocking moments out of sight, just enough to keep it bearable for younger audiences. That The Breadwinner recognizes the importance and power of stories to form and stabilize our identities as individuals and communities gives it a transcendent wisdom that is both inspiring and moving.

breadwinner

8. Blade Runner 2049 (dir. Villeneuve) continues the story begun by the original film 25 years ago. Some years on from the events of that earlier film, the haze of the city is matched only by the mystery that confronts the main character, a detective called K, about his particular case and, more generally, about his (and the film’s) looming questions on the nature of humanity. The oppressiveness of the music adds to the mystery an appropriate feeling of imprisonment or constriction. Gosling acquits himself well here, even as most of the other actors have much less to do. A brief scene between Gosling and a memory creator played by Carla Juri makes a poignant centerpiece for the film, though there are a number of other excellent sequences that mark the emotional landscape.

blade-runner-2049

7. Nearing the graduation of his daughter, Eliza, from high school, Romeo’s plan to have her study abroad (and thereby have access to a better life outside Romania) is nearly complete. But a day before Eliza’s senior exams, she is violently attacked, leaving her future in doubt. Graduation (dir. Mungiu) carefully unfolds the ethical dilemma that faces a father who wants the best life possible for his daughter. The film sharply traces the destructiveness of dishonesty on relational, generational, legal, and even political levels. Mungiu builds toward a pretty affecting conclusion that raises questions even as it moves toward some semblance of resolution.

graduation_2016

6. The Son of Joseph (dir. Green) is a joyful film, which sort of feels odd to say given the strict formalism of the first two-thirds. But the static and balanced shots early give way to movement and imbalance in the last act, which mirrors the deeply personal journey of the titular son. The film’s conclusion, which employs a formal technique used often earlier in the film, was shockingly vulnerable, and makes a profound statement about love and care as the centerpiece of true family.

sonofjoseph-a

Six Discoveries in 2017

Each year I enjoy the opportunity to seek out older films that I’ve never seen. In the process, I discover some gems that I feel grateful to have uncovered. For me, this historical work is important, as it reminds me that there is much out there sitting on the shelves of Netflix’s warehouse, or worse, are simply unavailable. The films on this list share a common concern for truthful portrayals of humanity, craftsmanship marked by beauty, and/or an appreciation for the good.

Six Discoveries from Years Past:

  • Nightjohn (1996, dir. Burnett): Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Burnett was working for Disney on this film, and so the standard feel-good sentimentality caveats are in order. Despite (or maybe because of) those limitations, Burnett manages to imbue this with real heart and humanity. The story centers upon an enslaved man, John, arriving at a new plantation. Unbeknownst to the plantation owner, John has an especially rare skill: he knows how to read. He begins to teach a 12-year old girl, Sarny, in secret, because such an action is punishable by death. To Burnett’s credit, the people on screen come across as actual human beings (including the white villains, but especially the black leads) rather than stereotypes, and Burnett manages to direct our attention to a variety of themes: literacy, freedom, feminism, power, etc. As John tells Sarny, “Words are freedom.” In that spirit, films can be as well.

    nightjohn2

  • Pickup on South Street (1953, dir. Fuller): Fantastic storytelling in this crime drama. The camerawork is distinctive without being flashy. And it includes the wonderful Thelma Ritter, who’s as good as she ever was in this film.

    pickup on south street

  • She’s Gotta Have It (1986, dir. Lee): Formally, so good. Loved the mirroring of the opening shot with the closing. The interspersing of New York photographs hearkened back to Allen’s Manhattan, helping to develop the film’s sense of place. And the exquisite dolly shot that has become Lee’s trademark didn’t disappoint. The film is challenging in its characterization of Nola–an independent woman (a positive, for sure) who takes a reckless and destructive approach to relationships.

    shes gotta have it

  • Chimes at Midnight (1965, dir. Welles): Striking imagery and a fabulous characterization from Welles undergird both the comedy and the tragedy of this tale of Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff. As usual, Welles’ camera never ceases to find an interesting angle from which to shoot, moving in for extreme close-ups or shooting wide in a cavernous palace or on a barren hillside. And the battle scene feels quite modern, creating a sense of chaos that seems appropriate to the moment.

    Chimes-At-Midnight

  • Silver Lode (1954, dir. Dwan): After Dan Ballard is arrested by Marshalls on charges of murder and theft, the accused simply refuses to tell anyone what actually happened, because he knows no one would believe him. Though he had lived for years in the community, once labelled with false charges, he becomes persona non grata. This underscores the film’s McCarthy-era echoes, while giving them a sense of humanity, prompting us to ask ourselves whether we would join the mobs gathering to oppose “the bad guy” or if we would take a more measured approach and listen to reason. The only one willing to listen in Dwan’s world is the whore. . . sounds about right.

    silver lode

  • White Heat (1949, dir. Walsh): A well-paced thriller in which every character of significance tries to scheme or manipulate someone else. This fundamental human disconnection reveals an underlying lack of humanity at its end, portrayed ferociously and tragically by Cagney.

    white heat

The Little Match Girl (1928)

Sometimes, the best way to perceive the nature of a thing is to place it in contrast to a radically different object. Jean Renoir adapts Hans Christian Anderson’s fairy tale in such a way as to highlight the harsh realities of poverty. He achieves his purpose through a sharp juxtaposition of opposites.

In the 33-minute film’s first half, a figure that appears only in shadow forces the poor match girl, Karen, out of her shack and into the blustery night to sell her wares. As she walks through the town, Renoir employs a wide shot followed by a medium shot. People hustle by her as she spins right and left to catch their attention. The movement looks something like a companionless dance, graceful and fluid yet empty. Furthermore, not a single person looks at her until she stops, worn out and depressed from her lack of success.

When a man in need of matches sees her, a glimmer of hope lights the film. But some friends quickly usher him into a nearby restaurant. Just before, she had peered through the window of a car to get a better look at his friends. After the man enters the restaurant, she presses her nose to the window, an outsider to the comfortable world within. Two boys also see her, but only as a target for their snowballs.

When she finally shuffles away from the restaurant, a policeman takes notice, and they spend a few minutes looking in a toy store window together, admiring a collection of figurines in a miniature town filled with joy and peace and order. The encounter is pleasant, but Karen and the policeman have something in common—they both stand outside that wonderful world in the toy store window. When she departs, she can’t bring herself to go home without a sale. So she sits under a lamp in the snow and lights matches to keep warm. Her grueling world offers her no comfort, no solace, and no justice.

At this point, Karen’s hunger and chill lead her to hallucinate that she is in a toy store where everything is life size. Dolls, a ballerina, and a giant beach ball populate this strange place. Renoir blurs the image during the transition, visually indicating a movement away from the harsh realism of the film’s first half.

In the store, Karen finds a jack-in-the-box who happens to be the same policeman she had seen on the street. She also spies out the commanding officer of a group of toy soldiers, the same man who needed matches, the same man who held with him the promise of taking her to another kind of world. She runs to him, where he declares his love for her and provides her with a table full of food. Her dreams are coming true.

When the jack-in-the-box approaches them and identifies himself as Death, the officer and Karen jump on a horse and ride into the heavens, hoping that there they will escape. But Death finds them even there. When Death finally lays a lifeless Karen under a cross, the symbol of suffering morphs into a flowering bush. As the petals drop on her dead face, Renoir brings us back to reality, snowflakes falling instead of petals. No one knows of the beautiful moments she had in her last bits of consciousness, seeing only the foolishness of keeping warm with matches.

The abrupt shift from the vision back to reality has the effect of highlighting the painful realities of Karen’s poverty. It’s in the contrast with fantasy that we see the reality clearly, especially because reality actually breaks into Karen’s fantasy and ends it. Renoir is kind to Karen in that final moment, though, closing the film with an out-of-focus close-up of her face. Renoir reminds us of her fantastical vision of a world that, at least for a moment, carried with it some measure of hope. The tragedy of the film is that people like Karen have no hope of elevating their circumstances. But the beautiful desire for something better—for joy and peace and justice—that lies in the most desperate of hearts serves to ignite in us a glimmer of hope as well.