Neil Gaiman on Lewis, Tolkien, Chesterton

Thanks to Betty Ragan for tipping me off to this speech by Neil Gaiman on growing up with the stories of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and G.K. Chesterton. Two bits about Lewis’s Narnia books jump out at me in particular:

For good or ill the religious allegory, such as it was, went entirely over my head, and it was not until I was about twelve that I found myself realising that there were Certain Parallels. . . . I was personally offended: I felt that an author, whom I had trusted, had had a hidden agenda. I had nothing against religion, or religion in fiction . . . My upset was, I think, that it made less of Narnia for me, it made it less interesting a thing, less interesting a place.

Apart from isolated passages that I’ve looked up here or there, I have not read the Narnia books myself in years (must correct that soon), so I cannot say whether I agree with Gaiman’s assessment — but as I hinted in my earlier post on the paganism of Narnia, I certainly think many of Lewis’s acolytes run the risk of prizing and promoting the “hidden agenda” aspect of his books more than their other, arguably better qualities. How often do we hear Christians praising Lewis for his superb writing ability and his knowledge of classic myth and literature, compared to how often we hear Christians praising his books for having a message?

Second, there is this:

C.S. Lewis was the first person to make me want to be a writer. He made me aware of the writer, that there was someone standing behind the words, that there was someone telling the story. I fell in love with the way he used parentheses — the auctorial asides that were both wise and chatty, and I rejoiced in using such brackets in my own essays and compositions through the rest of my childhood.

I cannot say that I remember Lewis’s use of parentheses, per se, but I certainly fell in love with his writing style when I was young — not just in the Narnia books but also in his science fiction, his Christian apologetics, and his literary criticism — and I remember very vividly my father telling me that all writers, even Lewis, had to send their work to editors before it got published. I was disappointed, of course, to think that not every single word that appeared under Lewis’s name was necessarily put there by him — and, being only six years old or so, I was also a little discouraged to think that my words, such as they were, had to gain someone’s approval before they could see print.

But that was in the days before blogs, of course!

Do Canadians see the same movies as Americans?

I like numbers, and I like comparing and contrasting different cultures, and last summer I discovered a website that posts the weekend box-office figures for both Canada in particular and North America in general. So, naturally, I began keeping tabs on this site and noting which films appeared to be more or less popular in Canada than they were in the States.

I actually first started thinking about this around the time I read a news report to the effect that The Passion of the Christ made about 7% of its money in Canada, a country that has about 10% of the combined Canadian-American population. And since The Passion had broken The Return of the King‘s record for a five-day opening, I thought it was striking that it had made, in Canada, only half of what The Return of the King made here.

However, it wasn’t until I began reading about Fahrenheit 9/11‘s popularity in Canada that I began to scour the web for some sort of freely available Canadian box-office report. After that, I kept tabs on the weekly top tens for that year at this other site — and now I’m going to do the same here. The totals for all the films that made the Canadian top tens in 2005 will be updated here.

FWIW, a few broad patterns have presented themselves already. Films with an African-American or “urban” angle tend not to do quite so well in Canada, while films with a British or Asian angle will do better here than in the States.

Some of the most glaring examples of this have occurred in just the past few weeks: On the one hand, Diary of a Mad Black Woman opened at #1 in “North America” four weekends ago, but — despite being distributed by a Canadian-owned company! — it was not released in Canada at all until last Friday, and it still failed to make a single appearance in our top ten. On the other hand, Bride and Prejudice — a Bollywood riff on an English novel — has been in the Canadian top ten for the past four weekends, yet it has never been higher than #15 in “North America”. (An even more glaring example would be the martial arts film Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior, which opened at #4 in Canada over a month ago but has never been higher than #17 in “North America”.)

So, without further ado, here are the figures for the past weekend, arranged from those that owe the highest percentage of their take to the Canadian box office to those that owe the lowest.

Bride and Prejudice — CDN $1,306,771 — N.AM $4,812,473 — 27.2%
Hostage — CDN $2,417,521 — N.AM $19,503,139 — 12.4%

Million Dollar Baby — CDN $9,075,366 — N.AM $89,943,692 — 10.0%
Constantine — CDN $7,018,363 — N.AM $70,382,151 — 9.9%
Hitch — CDN $14,946,875 — N.AM $159,325,368 — 9.4%
Be Cool — CDN $4,350,260 — N.AM $47,275,015 — 9.2%
Ice Princess — CDN $592,094 — N.AM $6,807,471 — 8.7%

Robots — CDN $5,408,455 — N.AM $66,067,739 — 8.2%
The Pacifier — CDN $5,328,603 — N.AM $72,270,940 — 7.4%
The Ring Two — CDN $2,338,706 — N.AM $35,065,237 — 6.7%

A couple of discrepancies: Bride and Prejudice was #10 on the Canadian chart (it was #15 in North America as a whole), while Diary of a Mad Black Woman was #9 on the North American chart.

Steyn on Sondheim

Political punditry aside, one of the reasons I like Mark Steyn so much is that he is one of the funnier and more entertaining columnists around, and, unusually for a right-wing kind of guy, his sense of humour is deeply influenced by his love of show tunes. P.J. O’Rourke may be up-to-date on the latest pop-culture fads, and Dennis Miller may love to flaunt his encyclopedic knowledge of every trivial thing under the sun, but Steyn has a uniquely passionate and historically-engaged awareness of his chosen artform, so when he drops a line from a Broadway musical into one of his political pieces, he’s not (just) being glib — he is speaking a vocabulary that he knows and loves; he is speaking about subjects that matter to him in a vocabulary that matters to him. (Y’know, kind of like how I bring movies into every conversation.)

All that intro just to say that today, in honour of Stephen Sondheim’s 75th birthday, Steyn has posted an excerpt from his book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight on Sondheim’s unusual career path, from the major artistic and commercial successes of West Side Story and Gypsy to the comparative, and almost intentional, flops of Assassins and Passion.

My favorite quote: “‘Art Isn’t Easy’? Oh, yes, it is, compared with craft.”

The Bible Collection comes to DVD

I happen to have a soft spot for Bible movies, so I am glad to discover today that some of the better entries in ‘The Bible Collection’, a series of TV-movies produced between 1994 and 2002, will be coming out on DVD in a couple months.

Because the series’ producers struck different production and distribution deals for different films in that series, part of the series is actually already on DVD — Trimark released a boxed set a few years ago that includes Genesis: Creation and the Flood, Solomon, Jeremiah and Esther (my review), and individual DVDs are also available for Jesus (my review), Paul the Apostle (my review) and The Apocalypse (my review).

But the best entries in this series were among the six films distributed by Warner Home Video — and after years of languishing on VHS, these films are finally being released on DVD. Amazon.com has Abraham, Jacob, Joseph and Moses all slated for a June 7 release; I am especially eager to save shelf space and replace my bulky two-tape sets with digital copies of the latter two, which both co-star Ben Kingsley and are among the better dramatic interpretations of these familiar Old Testament stories that I have seen.

Alas, Amazon.com has no listings for Samson and Delilah or David, at least not yet — not that these were particularly great films, but still, y’know, I’m a completist.

Dear Frankie, Up and Down opening Friday

I was just reminded that a couple of good films that I caught at last year’s film festival are opening in Canada this coming Friday. Here are the rather informal blurbs — not reviews, as such — that I wrote about them at the time:

Dear Frankie (UK, 105 min.) is a modest but charming film about a woman (Emily Mortimer) who hires a man to pose as the father of her 9.5-year-old son. The son, you see, has been writing letters to his dad, who he believes has been sailing the world for years, and the son has been receiving letters in return — but the fact is, the person answering his letters all this time has been his mother, and not his father. (Exactly WHY the parents split up is one of those things the film does not reveal at first.) Then, mere days after moving to a new town by the sea, word comes that a boat bearing the name of the ship on which Frankie’s dad supposedly works is on its way — and so the mother looks for someone to pretend that he is Frankie’s dad. A somewhat contrived set-up, but once you swallow it, the rest of the film goes down pretty easy. I’m a sucker for films about the special friendships that sometimes form between children and grown-ups, and the guy who poses as Frankie’s dad is a believably rugged but sympathetic individual. On the other hand, I have a real resistance to films which revolve around major deceptions, and I always dread that moment at the beginning of the third act when the truth comes out and someone yells “YOU LIED TO ME!” at someone else, so I was afraid we would have to endure that sort of thing here, too … but it never really happens. Indeed, the ending of the film is a bit of a cheat, that way, but I actually LIKE the fact that the film avoided those sorts of formulae, even if it had to cheat a bit to do so. The film, which was written, directed, and produced by women, definitely has the feel of a crowd-pleaser, but it doesn’t push our buttons too hard. I liked it.

. . .

Last night, I caught Up and Down (Czech Republic, 108 min.), the latest film from Jan Hrebejk, whose Divided We Fall a few years back was easily one of my favorite films of the year in which it was released here. His new film is once again concerned with questions of racism and parenthood, but where the earlier film was set during the Holocaust and softened by religious symbolism, the new film is set in the present day and ends on a somewhat more ambiguous and even troubling note. The characters include a professor who realizes he doesn’t have long to live, so he wants to divorce his estranged wife and marry the woman he’s been living with and raising a daughter with for the past 18+ years; the estranged wife herself, who has a marvellous collection of kitsch and who curiously insists on wearing a wig when her real hair seems to me to be much better; the son of the professor and his estranged wife, who has lived in Australia for years and returns to Prague for a tense meeting between the professor’s two families; a woman desperate to be a mother who buys a “black” or gypsy baby on the black market; the husband of that woman, whose life has been so full of obstacles and weaknesses, including a penchant for violence, that he has rejected God in favour of a racist club of soccer fans; and the black marketeers themselves, who smuggle refugees across the border, hock various stolen items, and so on. I am struck by how the film manages to portray certain characters as the utterly pathetic people they are, yet still engenders a remarkable degree of sympathy for them; perhaps it is not the people so much as their situations that are pathetic, and which evoke our sympathy. One of the puzzling paradoxes of this film is that we really want the soccer fan to support his wife in raising their child — it might even prompt him to turn his back on his racist friends! — and yet we know that the child’s true mother is desperately searching for him, and we want the child to return to HER arms, too. Some of the humour at the expense of the racists runs the risk of entrenching just a different set of racial stereotypes (e.g., never attack an Asian tourist, he just might know martial arts!), and some might also quibble with the portrayal of Australia as a land of racial harmony, but the film is generally a rather compassionate look at some of the ethnic and political tensions facing the Czech Republic today, and I liked it.

Hmmm, I just realized that both blurbs end with the words “I liked it.” A bit trite and redundant, that, but I saw them several days and blurbs apart from each other! Anyway, Up and Down opens Friday at the Carlton in Toronto and the Tinseltown in Vancouver. Dear Frankie, alas, opens in Toronto only, for now.

Oblations and Most (The Bridge)

Just got home from Granville Chapel, where Ron Reed (of Pacific Theatre fame) did a mini-lecture on film. I happen to be doing a mini-lecture on film there myself in four weeks — Sunday April 17, 6pm, includes dinner, dessert, and a trivia game — so I was curious to see what Ron had to say, partly because Ron always has interesting things to say, but also because I wanted to make sure I didn’t repeat too much of what he said when it becomes my turn to speak!

As it is, Ron’s speech reminded me of something from my past. Way back in my teens, my nascent thoughts on faith and film were profoundly influenced by two books: Franky Schaeffer’s Addicted to Mediocrity and Stephen R. Lawhead’s Turn Back the Night. (This was long before Schaeffer converted to Orthodoxy and began writing novels that took the piss out of his Calvinist upbringing, and a fair bit before Lawhead became famous for his novels specializing in Arthurian lore.) Shortly after reading both books, it occurred to me that Schaeffer’s book was largely written for “producers” of art, while Lawhead’s book was written for “consumers” of art — and I think Ron’s presentation and mine will take place at similarly different places on the art-appreciation continuum.

Ron does write critiques, but he is primarily a playwright and actor, and his talk tonight was focused on what artists do when they make art. Using clips from Rivers & Tides (one of my ten favorite films that premiered in Vancouver last year), Smoke (a film I appreciate), and American Beauty (a film I personally don’t care much for, but hey), Ron talked about the way art functions as oblation — the way it takes common elements, offers them up in an almost sacramental form of thanksgiving, and then distributes those elements to others.

Listening to him, it occurred to me that the very act of photography itself is a form of “oblation” — cameras receive common light rays bouncing off of common objects, transform them into something on celluloid, and then those images are distributed to people through some sort of communal venture, whether photographs or art gallery shows or whatnot. And thus, films themselves can be a sort of “oblation” — though it probably depends on the spirit in which any given film is made. (Or does it? Considering how many crewmembers on any given shoot are just there for the pay, whose intentions count and whose do not? Do filmmakers ever accidentally stumble into making an “oblation” of some sort? And what about those of us in the audience? Can we turn a film into an “oblation” simply by receiving it and transforming it into something more than what it is, through the way we watch it, appreciate it, discuss it with others, and so on?)

Of course, as an animation buff, I have to point out that the notion of film and photography as “oblation” — the receiving, transforming, and re-distributing of common elements — may not apply to cartoons and other films that don’t depict common reality at all. Animated films, especially in this digital age, work on a whole other level. (I am reminded of that amusing, ironic moment in Waking Life where the two animated characters try to experience reality through a “holy moment” together.)

But anyway, there was some really interesting food for thought in Ron’s speech — and it came pretty solidly from the point of view of one who makes art. I expect my own spiel will come more from the point of view of one who receives art. So I don’t think I needed to worry at all about our two speeches overlapping each other; the two speeches will be fairly different, and yet, I think they will complement each other quite well.

After dessert, Ron hosted a screening and discussion of Most (The Bridge) (2003), a Czech-language film that was nominated for the Oscar for short live-action film not too long ago (the award went to something called Two Soldiers, instead). I believe I have heard that it was produced by Christians, and if I had not heard that, I wonder how long it would have taken me to figure out that this film is basically a dramatization of a famous sermon illustration. (As it is, I figured it out almost exactly halfway through the film’s half-hour running time.) At any rate, while I might quibble with a few things, it’s a pretty good little film, and worth seeing if you get the chance, especially since it goes just a bit beyond the sermon illustration’s simple allegory.


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