God’s Not Dead (2014)

God’s Not Dead tells a familiar story (the lone hero delivers salvation to the community by defeating the forces of evil) filtered through a modern Evangelical mindset that seeks victory in its war with an out-of-control culture. Here are the story details: a freshman student (the too-aptly named Josh Wheaton) at a major university won’t compromise his Christian faith by fulfilling a course requirement of his atheist professor, namely to sign a statement affirming that God is dead. The professor then requires the student to give three twenty-minute lectures—one in each of the next three class meetings—to prove his point that God is not dead, with the class serving as the jury. If the student fails in his task, he will fail that section of the course—and possibly the course overall, while also apparently putting at risk his hopes of getting into law school.

An Unconvincing Approach

While I certainly believe that students of faith will sometimes have troubles in classrooms led by non-believing professors, the way in which this movie presents its story leaves the final product completely unconvincing. A couple of quick examples will have to suffice:

  • No atheist would recognize him or herself in the atheistic characters in the movie. I mean, who responds to news of a friend’s cancer diagnosis with, “Couldn’t this have waited until tomorrow?” If a Christian writer or filmmaker can’t portray an atheist that’s recognizable to other atheists, it’s best to go back to the drawing board until you get it right. Otherwise, your movie will alienate and infuriate the very people you claim to be concerned about. Furthermore, the way the atheist characters are written opens up the filmmakers to claims of hypocrisy: just as the “bad guys” in the movie openly mock the Christians, so too do the filmmakers create mocking caricatures for their bad guys. We Christians need to be better than this.
  • No freshman student is going to be able to put together presentations like those we see in the film on his own and in such a short period of time. The fact that Josh is completely alone on the campus, with no one to help him or even to bounce ideas off of further compounds the problem. Either this is the only college campus in America that doesn’t have Christians on it, or Josh isn’t bright enough to seek out those Christians for some assistance. Either way, it makes the fact that he comes up with those presentations all the more unbelievable.

I could critique any number of other things in the film from the way characters are mere mouthpieces for ideas rather than anything resembling human beings or the way the villains are shown to be both non-Christians and terrible people (as if the former was not enough for these filmmakers). However, I want to focus on two particular points that reveal a dangerous strand of thinking in Evangelicalism today.

Celebrating Death?

This film handles death in despicable fashion. As the wicked, atheist professor sees his godless fiefdom crumbling, he steps off a curb in the middle of a raging thunderstorm and gets hit by a car. That the storm came up right before that moment is the first indication that this death is an act of God. Further, notice the God’s-eye view of the camera in the moment after the car hits the Professor. This indicates even more strongly some kind of sovereign act, a meting out of eschatological judgment on someone who hasn’t once in this film experienced the love of Christ through God’s people. Harsh. What are we left with? God kills this man in a car accident in order to convince him to convert moments before expiring. At least in the Bible God announced His judgment before it came. The resulting conversion is no victory when God has blood on His hands.

But if that wasn’t enough, the two “mature” Christians in the film extend this despicable view of death. The final line of the movie comes from the African missionary friend of the pastor (both of whom just so happened to be at the scene of the accident). With police and ambulance sirens still flashing in his eyes at the scene of the death, the missionary calls the moment a cause for celebration. While he acknowledges the pain involved in death, he also expresses his pleasure that the dead professor is joyful now that he’s with God. Apparently, we can celebrate the death of one of God’s image-bearers, but only because he has just converted from atheism to Christianity.

That this line is the final moment in an ostensibly Christian film shows a deep misunderstanding of the Christian teaching about death. Death is always a tragedy. It should be treated be as such. The Bible calls death our enemy. It should be treated as such. Our enemy certainly did not originate with our Creator. That Christians are celebrating the man’s death at all, not to mention while the sirens are still flashing, is one of the most calloused moments I’ve seen at the movies in some time.

A New Kind of Martyr Story

I believe God’s Not Dead to be a uniquely American Evangelical take on the ancient Christian martyr story tradition. In those ancient tales from the first centuries after Christ, the martyr suffered imprisonment, harsh questioning, torture, and ultimately death. The popularity of the stories involved the opportunity for hearers to appreciate the perseverance and faithfulness of the martyrs, but also the opportunity to identify with Christ in His suffering.

God’s Not Dead turns that ancient story form on its head in important ways. Although the situation is set up to reveal persecution, the protagonist suffers little outside the indignity of a few snide remarks and vague threats. But most importantly, God’s Not Dead doesn’t end with the Christian dying in identification with Christ as the ancient martyr story would have prescribed. Rather, the American Evangelical spin sees not the persecuted but the persecutor die, while victorious Christians stand over him in triumph and receive praise before thousands.

Popular American cinema has long had a fascination with the lone hero destroying the wicked. That this has nothing to do with the role of Christians in the world seems not to have occurred to the Evangelical filmmakers in charge of this project. This film is so fascinated with the triumph of Christians in their carefully constructed culture war that it completely casts aside the fundamental Christian values of suffering and self-sacrifice. Josh sacrificed virtually nothing and received the accolades of thousands for it. If Jesus had followed Josh’s pattern, he would have been threatened, told non-believers why they were wrong (He only ever challenged His own religious community), and then been praised for winning the argument. That kind of Jesus would require him taking a rhetoric class, not offering Himself as a sacrifice.

God’s Not Dead is a dangerous film because it rips the self-sacrificial heart out of Christianity’s chest. I hope non-Christians never see it (that they might not have one more reason to hate/dismiss Christians). And I hope that the Christians who see it will not simply look to have some pre-conceived notions or fears affirmed. Rather, I hope they will see through the movie’s errors about image-bearing human beings, death, and winning the “war” between Christians and non-Christians. As Christians, we need to be better at reaching out to people, not destroying them; at serving them, not standing against them; and at loving them, not hating them.


Like Someone in Love (2012)

Abbas Kiarostami has long been exploring the line between fact and fiction. His 1990 film Close-Up follows a man posing as Iranian director Moshen Makhmalbaf to a well-off family. Twenty years later, Kiarostami came back around to the fact/fiction line in his masterful Certified Copy. There, two strangers tour an Italian village together and then they inexplicably begin to take on the characteristics of a married couple.

These two films explore ideas around representation and the filmic image. How much of reality does the “copy” or the “image” actually represent? What is merely an image in Close-Up, and what reflects the reality of the characters (who play themselves)? Are the couple in Certified Copy merely acting out an elaborate scene due to mutual attraction, or do they have a real and remembered past together? Kiarostami provides no definitive answers to these questions in the films. This ambiguity seems to give a vibrancy and immediacy to film (and art, more broadly) by suggesting that the image of something has a real and particular connection to that which it images. Seen in that light, these films from Kiarostami read as apologies for art, beautifully fashioned visual statements that show us that art matters in whatever form it comes, for art’s fictions cannot help but break into reality.

These thoughts were in my mind at the conclusion of Kiarostami’s most recent feature, Like Someone in Love (2012). Here too the old master explores issues around identity, representation, and image. This is no more clearly seen than in the sequence that stands at the film’s center, a conversation between Akiko (a call girl) and Watanabe (an aged, widowed professor) about a painting—Yazaki’s Training a Parrot—hanging in his home. Akiko reminisces about receiving a print of the painting as a teenager, naively believing her uncle’s assertion that he had painted it with her image in mind. As she describes this memory, she also sets herself in the pose of the woman in the painting, demonstrating the resemblance.

The layers of image are several in this single moment. Moving backwards from most immediate layer to the original, we have the film image itself, Akiko’s pose, uncle’s claim of her being the inspiration for the painting, the copy of the original painting hanging in Watanabe’s home, the original painting that hangs in a Tokyo museum, and finally the moment itself (which may have been posed or simply imagined in the mind of the painter). Each of the moments leading back to the original more or less resemble the original painting, if not the actual inspiration itself, which remains unknown to us. And yet, despite the resemblances from one layer to the next, what we also have here are a series of deceptions. In my view, the film’s story leads us to believe that the deceptions carry the greatest weight.

We don’t see these negative results until these two characters spend some time together, allowing Kiarostami to introduce Akiko’s boyfriend, Noriaki into the mix. He believes his girlfriend to be chaste and faithful to him (though he has had that questioned recently), and comes to believe that the old man is her grandfather. In both cases, Noriaki’s relationships with the two principals—while in one sense connected to reality—are fundamentally based on deceptions. It is those deceptions, rather than any resemblance to reality, that comes to define the narrative.

This leaves the film with a much darker tone than we find in the ambiguities of Close-Up and Certified Copy. Here Kiarostami seems to be wrestling specifically with the way that images deceive, and the tragedies that result. Such misunderstandings introduce a sense of betrayal over what seemed to be real but was in fact merely an image.

However, these deceptions also point us to the posture of Noriaki, whose insistence on nailing down the identities of both Akiko (he wants to marry her to alleviate any falseness he senses in her) and Watanabe (Noriaki merely assumes that Watanabe is her grandfather), leads him to increasing levels of frustration and rage. Rather than simply interacting with them as they present themselves to him, Noriaki seeks to force the issue, and in doing so, creates circumstances where deception thrives.

What we see then is that all are party to the deception, none are without responsibility, and all have some immediate connection to the results. Image or representation in this context takes on something of a complicated character. On the one hand its essential deceptions could lead to tragedy. On the other, if those deceptions are engaged the right way, one might indeed find a path toward unparalleled beauty.

Camera Buff (1979)

The central paradox of Kieslowski’s Camera Buff portrays an aspiring filmmaker, Filip, unable to balance his love of his family with his love of his art.

Kieslowski first raises this paradox with a strong ambiguity placed upon Filip’s pursuit of filmmaking in the film’s first act. The reticence over the place of the family in Filip’s life comes primarily from Filip’s wife, who sees all along that he has been blinded by a growing obsession. Kieslowski regularly punctuates her dialogue with some negative commentary on Filip’s filming.

However, even Filip initially has a limited understanding—or at least a sense—of the way his obsession might undermine his family. When Filip’s boss first enlists him to film the company’s anniversary celebrations, the boss cites an axiom of sorts, that cinema is the first great art. Filip responds that the quote came from Lenin, along with a decidedly confused, even disapproving look on his face. Filip wasn’t interested in making the film. And while some of that might have been the pressure of performing for regional bosses, the discomforting idea of moving away from family, already placed there by his wife, would have likely been in his mind. If Filip did indeed understand that tantalizing lure of obsession, he also had some choice in the matter. Kieslowski’s Filip is not some helpless mass of flesh prevailed upon by outside forces, but a willful man who chooses art over family.

Furthermore, Kieslowski carries an irony through the film that builds off of this notion of Filip’s vision or lack thereof: In his films, Filip seeks to present the world as it is, in a completely natural fashion. He even claims to want to see everything. Initially, this filmic desire was pointed at his family—Filip bought his first camera to film his newborn daughter. But as Filip turns the camera away from his family, he stops seeing them clearly. He gives in to the obsession. So we have a moment after a dispute with his wife: Filip should seek her out, but instead merely watches her walk away. Seeing the back of her head in the street as she walks home is enough for Filip.

Kieslowski could easily demonize this move from family to art, but he holds the tension by revealing the praiseworthy aspects of Filip’s work: the way his friend Piotr praises the film of his mother, or how the handicapped worker is moved by Filip’s television special about him. As the conflict with his wife grows, Filip is a man divided between good things. And yet, he leaves behind the greater good (his family)? Or does he? That is the question, I suppose.

Filip’s pursuit of his art to the neglect of his family ends tragically, but also with the promise that from his pain, a more acute sense of self will emerge. Kieslowski doesn’t provide Filip an easy way out of his predicament, instead leading him to point the lens at himself as he searches for answers. This final act by Filip seems to be a recognition of his situatedness. All seeing occurs within a context. Though some like Filip have tried to ignore their own context in order to present an “objective” view of their world, none have succeeded at such “lofty” expectations. When Filip filmed the deceitful way that his town had spruced itself up for a regional event, he felt that his “objective” vision of the truth had to be seen, despite his boss’ direction to keep the film under wraps. The “truth” of Filip’s film, he believed, was the most important thing. However, Filip discovered that his own position was not nearly as objective as he had thought. This is the final straw for Filip, who destroys his next film, another similarly-themed exposé. Without recognizing his own subjectivity and context, he could never make honest, truthful art.

Favorites of 2012

With the Oscars right around the corner, I’d like to take the opportunity to post my twenty favorite films of 2012. Enjoy.

  1. Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (2011, Ceylan): As is often the case in the best films, writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan does remarkable things with a simple story, effectively combining his penchant for glorious cinematography with a masterfully written screenplay. The film tracks a group of police officers taking a confessed murderer around the countryside trying to find the exact place he buried the body (he was drunk when he killed). The visuals give the film something of an ethereal quality, which works well for the “fairy tale” aspect of the narrative. The layers to the narrative seem endless, touching on life, death, the nature of truth, the role of science/logic in the world, and compassion. The final act at the hospital takes the film to a level of complexity and beauty unmatched by most anything I’ve seen.
  2. The Kid with a Bike (2011, Dardenne): A masterpiece from the Dardenne brothers, the film follows 11 year-old Cyril as he seeks connection upon being sent to an orphanage by his father. A Bressonian meditation on the mystery of grace, the film benefits from a strong lead performance, an empathetic camera, and a refusal to sentimentalize a story about a child. The use of music seems a direct reference to Bresson’s A Man Escaped, while the use of red brings Lamorisse’s beautiful The Red Balloon to mind. And yet, the final product is all their own.
  3. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson): Sam abandons his summer camp to meet Suzy. These twelve year-olds are seeking to start something of their own, apart from the failures of the world they have known. Anderson’s wide-angeled world is on full display here, as characters wander at frame’s edge searching for connection. With Christian and native American imagery, Anderson’s direct interaction with the spiritual realm expands the film to a more mythic scale. The “once upon a time” nature of the story, and a sometimes fairy tale score also point in this direction. Combined with the typical eccentricities of Anderson’s films, these elements create one of the director’s most significant films.
  4. The Pruitt-Igoe Myth (2012, Freidrichs): This wonderfully complex portrait of a St. Louis housing project offers no easy answers about the failure of the government initiative, alternately implicating the idea, the maintenance, and the criminal element that made the projects their home. While examining the ins and outs of public policy and sociology, the film enters into territory few have entered–it adds real heart and humanity to the discussion, reminding us that public policy is always ultimately about people.
  5. The Turin Horse (2011, Tarr): Horse. Father. Daughter. Home. Wind. Gypsies. That about sums up the elements of this apocalyptic film. Béla Tarr’s “final” film transitions from movement to stasis, from open to closed, and from light to darkness–a true de-creation. And yet, it ends with a pause, one that seems more question than statement, “Now what?” The film’s intense focus on action over statement is its strength, as it includes only a single scene of extended dialogue. As the light flickers out near the end of the film, one wonders about the future of the dad/daughter, the future of our world, and the future of cinema. Will the light return?
  6. Elena (2011, Zvyagintsev): Exquisite visual style imbues this thriller with frustration, dread, and a set of questions that linger long after its conclusion. Zvyagintsev seems to have a knack for composition, tracking shots, and editing to a certain rhythm, as the film quietly and formally gains momentum during its run time. Also, the director is once again drawn to material dealing with family strife—a mother seeking to provide for her grown son, a father’s tendentious relationship with his daughter, and a married couple’s disagreements about how to spend their money—though this time the family shares the space with a hard and incisive look at blended families and social class in the new Russia.
  7. Damsels in Distress (2011, Stillman): Four collegiate women run a suicide prevention center as a way to serve their campus. The damsels of Stillman’s film spend most of their time trying to help others in their strange, off-kilter way. And yet, their distress arises because of their commitment to a kind of life in the world which their peers seem to have given up on. That Stillman makes his heroines so strange serves to underline the way the modern world has given up on their values. Stillman’s comedy is typically droll, and Gerwig’s line readings are especially effective. Great comedy.
  8. Looper (2012, Johnson): So Levitt’s face make-up doesn’t really work, but otherwise this is a largely satisfying time travel adventure about breaking generational cycles of violence and wrong-doing. The story involves Joe, a “looper” who has been hired to execute people sent from thirty years in the future. When Joe encounters his older self, everything changes. Johnson manages to keep the audience guessing on where the film will ultimately go, and the noirish sensibility offers plenty of intriguing visuals. The conclusion presents a somewhat troubling solution to the problem, but I can partly forgive that because the ending actually inspires further thought about how to break the cycle.
  9. Bernie (2012, Linklater): Bernie is based on the true story of an East Texas funeral parlor worker/worship leader who befriends the meanest (and richest) woman in town. When she turns up dead, suspicion—and sympathy—falls on Bernie. The comedy here, much of which is very effective (the division of Texas was right on), serves as a counterpoint to the more dramatic, even horrific elements of the film. The inclusion of real townspeople among the “interviewees” underscores the horror as they illustrate, with their own words, the power of mass delusion. Through the use of laughter and local color, the film’s darker sensibility sneaks up on us, and those final real-life photos and footage slam home cold facts of the case.
  10. The Deep Blue Sea (2011, Davies): Beautifully rendered by Davies and his cast, this tragic tale of misdirected love succeeds especially because of its exquisite writing and direction. The best scenes involve Weisz and Beale, whose cautious, (re)strained relationship elicits an aching beauty. The film is a bit uneven when it involves Hiddleston, but still largely succeeds due to the careful observation and humanistic perspective that characterizes the direction. There are no easy answers or villains here–just the difficulties of life and love.
  11. I Wish (2011, Koreeda): Two brothers separate to live with their separated parents. The children eventually hatch a plan to get mom and dad back together, one that involves making a wish at a special spot. Gentle and light for most of its run time, the film shifts to something weightier during its final quarter. I Wish effectively captures the innocence and the straightforward (albeit often profound) hopes of children. A sequence when the children meet an elderly couple might be my single favorite bit in a film all year. While some sense of resolution occurs, Koreeda rightly keeps a major loose end dangling, bringing a sense of the real loss these kids have experienced.
  12. The Queen of Versailles (2012, Greenfield): This documentary tells the story of the couple who set out to build the largest home in America. However, when the economy drops out, everything changes. The film reveals the void in these people’s lives, utilizing the unfinished home as a poignant symbol of the lives they’ve created for themselves. Further, and maybe more importantly, the film reveals the often predatory nature of the US economy, where consumers, business leaders, and banks are all trying to get the best of each other. In the end, everyone loses. The absence of cooperation in the lives of these people both personally and professionally is a story with genuine relevance today.
  13. Safety Not Guaranteed (2012, Trevorrow): Sent on a trip to investigate a mysterious want-ad for a time travel companion, a young reporter (Aubrey Plaza) ends up increasingly intertwined with Kenneth—a man who seems to walk a fine line between passion and insanity. There’s no reason why this science-fiction/romantic comedy mash up should be good—obvious plotting, cheap effects, and a general goofiness to the whole thing. However, in light of its impossible-to-guess conclusion as the end point in a sequence of relationship stories, the critique of common sexual practice outside of committed relationships resonates. That, and Aubrey Plaza’s excellent turn in a pretty difficult role: having to convince an audience that she really did fall for Duplass’ committed nonconformist.
  14. The Master (2012, P. T. Anderson): Two men (master and student) become acquainted through a religious cult similar to Scientology. Anderson’s bold visual language is unparalleled in American cinema today. His use of space, his attentiveness to the physicality of his subjects, and his desire to make the personal epic are all on display here. Phoenix’s excellent performance (esp. the use of his body and face) stands out in a film full of them. However, the emotional and moral distance of the film is off-putting, particularly since the solution to deep-seated problems amounts to: ‘___ ___.’ (Don’t want to spoil it if you haven’t seen it)
  15. A Burning Hot Summer (2011, Garrel): A quietly remarkable film from Garrel, A Burning Hot Summer revels in the beauty of true love by way of illustrating the lack thereof. The younger Garrel and Bellucci are appropriately beautiful and passionate, and the film plays against these qualities quite nicely, turning in the last quarter of the run time to examine a tenderness borne out of commitment that the lead couple could never approach. The editing is often inspired, creating fascinating conjunctions between scenes.
  16. The Grey (2012, Carnahan): Liam Neeson leads a group of plane-crash survivors through the Alaskan wilderness, trying to reach safety before the wolves track them down. Visually, the film exudes the essence of its title. The men walk through a world with limited vision. Overcast skies, forest trees, blizzard conditions, and darkness all manage to keep them only in the moment of their experience. That leaves the focus of the film on staying alive and especially on dealing with the prospect of death. Neeson seems made for the role, and Carnahan’s choice to make the wolves barely visible effectively ratchets up the tension.
  17. Haywire (2012, Soderbergh): The plot is simple: a covert operative seeks revenge after a former colleague makes an attempt on her life. The film ends up as an amazingly good piece of entertaining fun. The real treats here are the formal choices Soderbergh makes, elevating a mildly interesting script to something much more engaging. I could watch the chase in Barcelona or the escape in Dublin over and over again–great visual film-making, with an inventive camera and editing that matches the pace of the moment. And the ending is just right, punctuating the conviction of the movie that Kane is more than a handful to deal with.
  18. Marley (2012, Macdonald): Solid documentary that underscores the most positive aspects of Bob Marley’s short life. The film walks a fine line between honest depiction and hagiography, crossing over into the latter on occasion. That said, there is some fantastic performance footage here, as well as interviews with the key figures in Bob’s life. While the film may not get too far into the darker side of Bob, it clearly portrays his hope and work for a better world, a place where everything’s gonna be all right.
  19. Searching for Sugar Man (2012, Bendjelloul): This film tells its “so-strange-it-must-be-true” story in two distinct halves: the first explores the South African myth that grew up around a mysterious folk singer from the 70s. The second offers a striking contrast–the story of a man in touch with both the harshness and the beauty of reality. These two halves together form a fascinating film that manages to be both thought-provoking and inspiring.
  20. The Forgiveness of Blood (2012, Marston): While the languid pacing certainly elicits something akin to the stir-crazy feeling of the main character on a formal level, I’m not sure Marston’s imagery is strong enough on its own to carry the film. The overarching story is simple but substantive, as the film seems to be asking significant questions about the practice of Albanian blood feuds and its effects on, especially, the next generation. I appreciate Marston’s willingness to shoot in foreign languages as he tells his international stories (see also, Maria Full of Grace).

Need to see: This is Not a Film, The Loneliest Planet, How to Survive a Plague, Lincoln, The Hobbit, Argo

 Favorite First-Time Films Shown Theatrically Before 2012: Love Affair (1939); Equinox Flower (1958); The Crimson Kimono (1959); The Devil, Probably (1977); Lourdes (2009); The Trip (2010); Le Havre (2011); Hugo (2011); Margaret (2011); The Swell Season (2011)

Tyrannosaur (2011)

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s semi-autobiographical novel, The House of the Dead, chronicles life inside a Siberian prison. In this remote place, Dostoevsky writes of the prisoners, “Here all were dreamers, and this was apparent at once. What gave poignancy to this feeling was the fact that this dreaminess gave the greater of the prisoners a gloomy and sullen, almost abnormal, expression.” This account of 19th- Century Russian prisoners, people carrying a hope for freedom buried under faces drawn with lines of concern, serves as an apt description for the lead characters, Joseph and Hannah, in writer-director Paddy Considine’s first film, Tyrannosaur.

The film tells the story of an unlikely friendship that blossoms between two people fighting for freedom. Joseph lives in a prison of his own making, his simmering rage ready to explode without a moment’s notice. Hannah lives in another kind of prison, one created by her domineering and abusive husband. As the film goes on though, Considine gives us signs that neither Joseph nor Hannah is content to let their lives run their current course. Both have made a point to reach out in kindness—Joseph to a young neighbor boy with an unideal home situation, Hannah by working in a charity clothing shop, and eventually to each other in friendship. This desire to look outside themselves and provide something better—even if only a pleasant conversation or a cheap blouse—mirrors their desire to find something better for their own situations as well.

Joseph appears more aware of this desire in himself, even as his outward behavior vacillates between morose and terrifying. In Mullan’s performance, Joseph possesses moments of clarity, and while impulsive, his impulses are not always directed toward anger and destruction. Hannah also expresses clarity, at times through her Christian faith and also in those moments when her prison closes in on her. In contrast to Joseph, Hannah internalizes her anger, seeking through her faith to take the high road in her relationship with her husband. Though they cope in different ways, Joseph and Hannah each struggle to control their rage. These unlikely friends—they meet when Joseph comes into her shop—work through the same struggle, one that, at times, yields terrifying results.

Tyrannosaur is a visceral, difficult film. Considine makes ample use of close-ups, bringing the audience into the closest contact with his subjects. And the darker the situation, the closer we seem to be. Even as we enter this dark world, Considine makes the journey worthwhile by helping us to see the terrifying consequences of rage and the transformative grace we can find in true friendship.

Rashomon (1950)

Akira Kurosawa’s first masterpiece, Rashomon, opens in the middle of a torrential downpour.  Two men huddle beneath an abandoned and deteriorating city gate. The imposing height of the gate offers a sense of the power that created it . . . and that power’s absence that has left it in disrepair. The two men, a poor woodcutter and a poorer Buddhist priest, mutter about their lack of understanding. Their confusion could easily be aimed at the sorry state of the world immediately around them, but when a third man approaches, we soon learn of the specific cause of their bewilderment.

The bulk of the film recounts the story at the source of their confusion—the rape of a young woman and the murder of her husband by a bandit. But what could have been a standard crime story set in medieval Japan becomes something special as Kurosawa takes the viewer through the same crime story multiple times, each according to the perspective of one testifying at trial. This multiplicity of views creates indeterminacy about what really happened that day in the forest. The opening shot the first time through the story—from the woodcutter’s perspective, he being a secret witness to the whole crime—is a tracking shot looking upward through the canopy of trees. As the sun darts behind leaves and then back out again, the stage is set for the confusion to follow.

The varying stories play out in not entirely unexpected ways, as each version tends to fulfill the storyteller’s best vision of themselves, undercutting whatever baseness may have inspired certain of their actions. In this we discover a great deal more give and take between the bandit and his two victims, each of them with opportunities to act freely at certain moments. However one comes down on what actually “happened” during the incident, Kurosawa uses the three men at the city gate retelling this story as his way of commenting on the proceedings. When faced with the complex problems of the world and a lack of certainty about “what happened,” where do these three men—representative of society as a whole—go from here?

For the priest, the story has called his faith in humanity into question. Once a believer in the essential goodness of people, he begins to understand through the retelling of these stories that humans have a propensity to lie. This fundamental weakness in humanity brings disillusionment for the priest, possibly even calling into question his own mission as a servant of something beyond himself.

The visitor, hearing all the stories for the first time, is the most cynical of the three. He questions the very existence of goodness at all, and seems to live according to this philosophy himself. This visitor believes that the only way to survival is through embracing our own selfishness. Thus, when the three men hear the cries of an abandoned baby in another part of the gate, the visitor quickly runs over, not to give comfort to the child, but to take its blankets for himself.

Finally we have the woodcutter. He is the prime example of weak humanity, initially telling a false version of the story to protect himself. However, the very fact that he told a false story once even calls into question his “authoritative” version at the film’s end. Is that how it actually happened? Who knows? And Kurosawa seems uninterested in solving that problem for the viewer. Instead, Kurosawa creates tension: this woodcutter is a liar on the one hand, but on the other, he reproves the visitor for stealing the baby’s blankets, and in the end, takes the baby home himself, to care for alongside his other children.

Rashomon’s greatness comes in its frank portrayal of the human situation: we are weak and uncertain creatures. What will we do in light of such circumstances? Will we pull back from the world, like the priest? Will we take whatever we can get, like the visitor? Or will we try to overcome our weakness and care for others, like the woodcutter? When the rain finally stops and the woodcutter walks off, baby in hand, it’s clear that Kurosawa’s heart is with the woodcutter, even as he knows the very existence of people like the priest and the visitor will continue to tempt us toward some lesser life.

Being Elmo (2011)

I have a confession to make: I never liked Elmo. Lay aside for a moment the oddity of a grown man having any opinions whatsoever regarding furry little puppets (the inner nerd in me has consistently championed Bert). On the other hand, Elmo’s high pitched babble and intensely bright fur were always a turn off.

I have a second confession to make: I was wrong.

It only took one moment from Constance Marks’ new documentary, Being Elmo, to convince me. In it, Elmo, played by his creator, Kevin Clash, welcomed a four- or five-year old girl to the set as part of the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Elmo greets the shy girl as her father holds her close. But Elmo shows no reservation whatsoever, talking to her and quickly moving in for a hug and kiss. The girl, her timidity keeping her from showing any affection in return, clung to her father and absorbed the puppet’s affection. But then Marks’ camera moved from puppet to creator, and the tears welling in Clash’s eyes said it all. His heart showed through in his art.

And this was the most fascinating element of the film for me. Sure its presentation of Clash’s story was interesting, and even inspiring in places. The details it gave about some of the luminaries that Clash worked with were worth the price of the rental. And the opportunity to get behind the scenes into the world of puppetry, to see a place where it had been practiced with such skill for so long—these all provided more than enough for an engaging film.

But it was that connection between an artist and his art, the way that a man’s soul is made tangible in his creation, that was so compelling for me. By all accounts, including his own, Clash is a bit timid himself. And yet, when he straps on that puppet, everything changes. The love and affection that Clash has for others becomes clear in his portrayal of Elmo. His art allows him to connect with people in deep and meaningful ways.

The film supports this idea with testimonies from fellow puppeteers and others around Clash. And when Marks includes footage of the day Clash’s wife gave birth to their daughter, with Clash narrating as the ride to the hospital as Elmo, we see that even in these most significant moments of the man’s life, he speaks not as himself, but as his creation. And while this leads to another whole set of interesting—and potentially controversial—questions about Clash’s identity and personal life, the film elides these in favor a more positive and affectionate portrayal of the creator behind this most popular of puppets. Even a life-long Elmo detractor can appreciate that.