“He’s got a lot to offer, but . . . he’s not funny.”

Making irreverent quips about Jesus is not exactly a conventional way to promote a romantic comedy, but that’s what Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-stars Jason Segel and Kristen Bell did recently when answering a question that arrived via e-mail:

Click here if the video file above doesn’t play properly.

Daring, especially for a promotional campaign. Do they risk losing any potential audience members over this? Who knows. You might not ordinarily expect religiously sensitive people to go to a raunchy, R-rated comedy, but producer Judd Apatow did make some fans among the socially conservative set thanks to the seemingly pro-abstinence and pro-life themes in The 40-Year-Old Virgin (2005) and Knocked Up (2007). So, who knows.

At any rate, this video does raise an interesting question. While it may be true that Jesus was not a professional comedian, is it necessarily true that he was not a funny guy? Certainly a number of recent filmmakers have made a point of emphasizing the humourous side of Jesus’ life and teachings — the most extreme example, perhaps, being Bruce Marchiano’s performance in The Visual Bible (1993-1996; my reviews). The comic sketches based on the parables in Godspell (1973) also come to mind, but I am not sure to what degree they bring out the humour inherent in the parables or to what degree they simply burlesque the parables VeggieTales-style. And then, of course, there is the scholarly discussion regarding the role of humour in Jesus’ ministry, which I don’t have time to get into right now — but it’s out there.

In any case, you may be wondering if anything resembling this “blasphemy” — as Segel puts it — exists in Forgetting Sarah Marshall itself. So for now, let’s just say that one subplot concerns a newlywed couple that has bedroom “issues” of a religious nature. More details to come when my review goes up on Friday.

Street Kings — the review’s up!

My review of Street Kings is now up at CT Movies.

A romantic comedy about “starter marriages”?

Variety reports that Universal has acquired the rights to Sascha Rothchild’s recent LA Weekly cover story ‘How to Get Divorced by 30‘ and will use it as the basis for a romantic comedy:

The author, using the disintegration of her first marriage along with those of five other friends, posits it’s best to begin with a “starter marriage” before finding your ultimate mate. She lays out 15 steps to guide readers to ending the first marriage.

The U comedy will focus on a heroine who road-tests the “starter marriage” premise and then finds her perceptions redrawn by reality and relationships.

So … will the movie support her thesis, that it’s good to get the first marriage over with quickly? Or will the movie end up subverting her thesis? Certainly there have been many films about intentionally short-term or superficial relationships that end up being deeper or lasting longer than the participants expected. It’s a longstanding cliché, though I think it reflects a certain truth about the nature of sexual relationships, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the film took that route just out of habit.

Sarah Polley vs. REAL Women re: Bill C-10

I think the section of Bill C-10 which allows the government to yank a movie’s tax credits for moral or educational reasons after it has been produced is a bad idea, for many of the reasons people have spelled out before. But I’m almost tempted to say I don’t have a dog in this fight right now.

Today and yesterday, various reporters — including the Globe and Mail‘s Gayle MacDonald, Jennifer MacMillan and Gloria Galloway, Variety‘s Brendan Kelly and the Canadian Press’s Ian Keteku — reported on the fact that Sarah Polley led a group of Canadian film industry types in meeting with the government and calling on the powers that be to change this aspect of the bill. And since I have never cared for Polley’s strident politicking, I find myself wishing the anti-C-10 forces had a better frontperson.

I also had to snort, just a little, when I read in Keteku’s piece that Brian Anthony, CEO of the Directors Guild of Canada, said the proposed law would lead to a “homogenization” of Canadian film. As if, due to the fact that the industry is so small and so many movies need up-front government financing to get made in the first place, with all the creative interference that comes with that, the industry didn’t feel pretty “homogenous” to begin with? Oh, sure, perhaps one kind of homogeneity would end up being sacrificed for another, but still.

Meanwhile, who is for this aspect of Bill C-10? Social-conservative groups such as REAL Women of Canada, reports the Globe and Mail in a separate story. Oh joy.

Actually, that last story raises some other interesting questions. One of the other pro-C-10 people quoted there is Rose Anne Dyson of Canadians Concerned About Violence in Entertainment, who cites American Psycho (2000) as an example of the sort of film that should have been denied tax credits in the past. But wait a minute, wasn’t that an American co-production, in which case Bill C-10 wouldn’t have had any effect on its tax credits to begin with? Or, since it was co-produced by Lions Gate, which is ultimately a Canadian company, would it have been affected after all? If a movie is produced by a Canadian firm and an American firm, can the producers decide which firm truly represents them, for tax purposes? If it is advantageous to be a “Canadian film” when getting the up-front funding but disadvantageous to be a “Canadian film” when applying for the tax credits afterwards, can the producers declare that their film is “Canadian” by one government agency’s set of criteria but not by the other’s? And so on, and so on.

Meanwhile, that last story also quotes Noa Mendelsohn Aviv of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, who says the proposed law could give the government power to ban Looney Tunes — but that is clearly nuts, since the law applies only to the financing of brand-new Canadian movies that are being produced now, and not to the distribution of foreign American films that were produced several decades ago.

Finally, the Canadian Press says politicians have been lining up to take a look at Young People Fucking, the Canadian film that, due to its title more than its content, has been cited most often during the debate over Bill C-10. All publicity is good publicity, and all that. The film comes to theatres June 13.

Errol Morris on belief, disbelief, and so on.

Errol Morris has now published part two of his blog post on the role of re-enactments in documentaries such as his — and the broader questions they raise in other kinds of film, and in real life as well. As always, his ruminations are quite interesting, but one section in particular leaps out at me:

The relationship between images in the mind and motion picture and still photography has been of interest since the beginnings of photography – even before motion pictures and photography. Samuel Taylor Coleridge in a much-quoted passage from his “Biographica Literaria” speaks of the effort of creating “that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith [that] can bribe us into a voluntary submission of our better knowledge, into suspension of all our judgment derived from constant experience, and enable us to peruse with the liveliest interest the wildest tales of ghosts, wizards, genii, and secret talismans.”

Regardless of what Coleridge originally intended – particularly when he was in the middle of some wildly extended opiated doggerel – the “willing suspension of disbelief” has been used as a catchall phrase to describe how we are to look at movies. Inappropriately, it seems to me.

The difficulty with images is not suspending disbelief but rather the opposite – suspending our natural tendency to believe in their veracity. The seeing-is-believing principle. The kind of re-enactments I have in mind are not based on trying to fool you into believing that something is real that is not. Nor are they based on the suspension of disbelief. They are not asking us to suspend your disbelief in an artificial world that has been created expressly for their entertainment; they are asking the opposite of us – to study the relationship of an artificial world to the real world. They involve the suspension of belief – not disbelief. The audience is being asked the question: did it happen this way? The kind of re-enactments I have in mind makes us question what we believe and brings us deeper into the mystery of what happened.

Continuity errors are a compilation of all those errors that we don’t usually see. But there are different kinds of continuity errors. Our interest in the continuity of the movie narrative prevents us from seeing the mistakes in how a movie is put together. Another example of a continuity error is how we fail to see how our mental narratives prevent us from seeing evidence – that there may be a discrepancy between how we see the world and the evidence we have at hand. This is, of course, what happened in the Randall Dale Adams case [in The Thin Blue Line]. Usually, the errors are in a faulty simulacrum of reality, a movie. But can’t a movie point out that we have in our minds a faulty simulacrum of the world? Aren’t they all examples of how narrative trumps evidence? Someone once argued to me that it is perverse to correct visual mistakes using a visual medium, but is it any stranger to correct verbal mistakes in a verbal medium? I don’t think so, as long as the visual medium – like movies – contains language.

There’s a lot to chew on here. But one reason this particular excerpt leaps out at me is because I have been quite skeptical of the phrase “suspension of disbelief” for at least the past five years. It was then that I came across this passage in J.R.R. Tolkien’s essay ‘On Fairy Stories‘:

Children are capable, of course, of literary belief, when the story-maker’s art is good enough to produce it. That state of mind has been called “willing suspension of disbelief.” But this does not seem to me a good description of what happens. What really happens is that the story-maker proves a successful “sub-creator.” He makes a Secondary World which your mind can enter. Inside it, what he relates is “true”: it accords with the laws of that world. You therefore believe it, while you are, as it were, inside. The moment disbelief arises, the spell is broken; the magic, or rather art, has failed. You are then out in the Primary World again, looking at the little abortive Secondary World from outside. If you are obliged, by kindliness or circumstance, to stay, then disbelief must be suspended (or stifled), otherwise listening and looking would become intolerable. But this suspension of disbelief is a substitute for the genuine thing, a subterfuge we use when condescending to games or make-believe, or when trying (more or less willingly) to find what virtue we can in the work of an art that has for us failed.

Around that time, I also came across a similar concept in Sarah E. Worth’s essay ‘The Paradox of Real Response to Neo-Fiction’ in The Matrix and Philosophy:

When we enter into a fictional world, or let the fictional world enter into our imaginations, we do not “willingly suspend our disbelief.” Coleridge aside, we cannot willingly decide to believe or disbelieve anything, any more than we can willingly believe it is snowing outside if all visual or sensory cues tell us otherwise. When engaging with fiction we do not suspend a critical faculty, but rather exercise a creative faculty. We do not actively suspend disbelief — we actively create belief. As we learn to enter into fictional spaces (and I do believe this is something that we have to learn and that requires skills we must practice and develop) we desire more and more to experience the new space more fully. We want to immerse ourselves in the new world, just as Neo begins to immerse himself in the real world outside the Matrix. To do this we can focus our attention on the enveloping world and use our creative faculties to reinforce the reality of the experience, rather than to question it.

I quote more from the latter essay here. But the point here is, it is interesting to me how Tolkien, as a writer of fiction, and Worth, as a reader of fiction, both stress the notion that we create belief when experiencing works of fiction, whereas Morris, as a filmer of non-fiction, stresses the notion that the staged re-enactments in his documentaries should cause us to suspend belief in works of non-fiction. It’s all a matter of context, isn’t it?

Oh, and I love the final thought at the end of Morris’s blog post. It was a real “whoa” moment for me — and it dovetails with what Worth says in the longer excerpt that I linked to above:

Re-enactment is not so much a visual activity, as it is a conscious activity. It is the process through which we imagine and re-imagine the world around us. The important thing to remember is that everything we consciously experience is a re-enactment. Consciousness, itself, is a re-enactment of reality inside our heads.

Come to think of it, this all fits rather nicely with those lectures I have given on the nature of memory, and how St. Augustine described memory as “the belly of the mind” because it is the place where our experiences go after we have digested them and we no longer have the experiences themselves to chew on.

Somebody up there … is throwing rocks at me?

I have always been profoundly aware of how tenuous our continued existence on this planet is, and how abruptly it could be called off, ever since I came across a photo in a children’s magazine — possibly National Geographic World — of a girl standing next to a dent in the ground where a teeny, tiny meteorite had just missed her. So I have a special interest in stories like this one, which appeared in the Daily Mail today:

A Bosnian man whose home has been hit an incredible five times by meteorites believes he is being targeted by aliens.

Experts at Belgrade University have confirmed that all the rocks Radivoje Lajic has handed over were meteorites.

They are now investigating local magnetic fields to try and work out what makes the property so attractive to the heavenly bodies.

But Mr Lajic, who has had a steel girder reinforced roof put on the house he owns in the northern village of Gornja Lamovite, has an alternative explanation.

He said: “I am obviously being targeted by extraterrestrials. I don’t know what I have done to annoy them but there is no other explanation that makes sense.

“The chance of being hit by a meteorite is so small that getting hit five times has to be deliberate.” . . .

For some reason this is reminding me of the brouhaha over the upcoming film Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed and the question of whether the evolution of life on Earth can be “best” explained by an “intelligent designer” rather than random chance, as well as the corollary question of whether this intelligent designer might be an alien rather than God. Certainly, in an earlier era at least, Lajic might have been inclined to assume that he had “annoyed” someone other than extra-terrestrials.

Two other stories of meteorite near-misses come to mind, both of them from four years ago. This one concerns a “grapefruit-sized black space rock” that “crashed through the living-room ceiling” of a home in New Zealand and “plunged on to a leather sofa . . . before bouncing back up to the ceiling and rolling under a computer table.” And this one concerns an elderly British woman who may have got “a one-inch gash along her forearm” from “a walnut-shaped metallic rock”. No doubt there are others, too.