Better Call Saul

better-call-saul-netflixBetter Call Saul, a prequel to AMC’s milestone series, Breaking Bad, further establishes co-creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould to be among the most intricate moral thinkers working in the dramatic arts. Whereas the first series rendered the ethical decline of a dying man who makes something of a noble bargain with his conscience—attempting to provide for his struggling family by entering the methamphetamine trade—the second series focuses on an altogether different landscape of principles.

Instead of depicting the inch-by-inch, then mile-by-mile, depravity that follows a dubious but not wholly dishonorable decision, Better Call Saul illustrates the confluence of causes that can make a man see himself in a certain way. If Breaking Bad’s Walter White is “Mr. Chips turned Scarface,” as Gilligan described him, Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill/Saul Goodman is Willie Stark turned strip-mall consigliere.

The series, now beginning its second season, is set in 2002, some six years before the action of Breaking Bad. As such, it gives the backstory on how Walter White’s outlandish shyster lawyer, Saul Goodman, becomes the man that he is. Goodman is the epitome of the ambulance-chasing, tasteless advertising (“Better Call Saul”) attorney, complete with a debased clientele and a shameless talent for truth perversion. [Read more…]

A Space Program

2spaceprogramcvrThe tenth item on a list entitled “How to Watch This Film,” which accompanies Tom Sachs’ A Space Program, says that the film is “a love letter to the analog era.”

That obsession with all things handmade and non-digital was obvious as I watched the film—even though I was sitting on my couch, streaming a digital screener on my iPhone and beaming it over WiFi to my Apple TV, which is about the least analog thing a person can do.

But Sachs loves this stuff. He’s a sculptor, sort of—playing with all kinds of things from the natural and human-made world to form whimsical new objects, like boomboxes and in this case, fake planets and massive mission control centers and even the credits roll for the film, which looks like it’s rolling by on taped-together black construction paper. [Read more…]

Finding My Inner Calamity Jane

Calamity JaneCalamity Jane lumbered around Deadwood in fringed buckskins, spitting, cursing, and waving her whiskey flask in the shadows of the Black Hills. And I want to be more like her.

Guns scare me, of course. Animal skins give me the willies, and more than a sip of hard liquor gets me coughing. Deadwood’s very existence on Sioux land, let alone its rampant gambling, prostitution and murder, screamed lawlessness. But crazy Jane loved. Not with a quiet, corseted, motherly love, but a fierce, table-flipping passion that even she didn’t seem aware of. Which, of course, makes it the best love of all.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction when it comes to the Old West because often the fiction was the fact. Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West, a show he refused to call a show, celebrated the “legend” of the West in real time with sharp shooting, staged robberies, and cowboy/Indian attacks. Calamity Jane joined the production later in life as a storyteller, exaggerating her tales with each performance.

Most historians say it’s hard to know what parts of her autobiographical pamphlet, The Life and Times of Calamity Jane, are true. But there is a general consensus that regardless of whom she shot or saved and when, and if, and whom she married and birthed, she wrestled gender expectations to the ground with her adventurous activities and attire and fought alcoholism to the grave. [Read more…]

The Coen Brothers, Plato, and the Imagination

By Santiago Ramos

Note: This review contains mild spoilers.

hail-cesarHail, Caesar!, the Coen Brothers’ latest offering, tells the story of a pious hero on a religious quest, and by all appearances is a movie that asks to be interpreted in a theological way. A quasi-parable set in a big studio during the Golden Era of Hollywood, the film is bookended by two sessions in a confessional, where the protagonist, a powerful Hollywood executive named Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), confesses a few, mostly venial sins.

Mannix is on a mission to complete and promote a big Biblical epic (“the prestige picture…of the year”) about a Roman Centurion’s encounter with Christ and eventual conversion to Christianity.

National Review film critic Ross Douthat was quick to seize upon the movie’s theological themes. “In the context of the movie itself, the studio system is … the Church Visible, The Body of Christ,” he tweeted. “It’s a motley corporate entity, shepherded by a suffering Christ figure [Mannix], in which sins are forgiven and people are guided into roles.”

But while the studio in Hail, Caesar! may be a hospital for sinners, it also never ceases to be a factory of images. While a theological interpretation works on many levels, it also misses a big part of the story. Hail, Caesar! is ambiguous about the power of the movie studio, Mannix’s role in it, and the nature of the movies themselves.

As much as it is a theological drama, Hail, Caesar! is about the Janus-faced, sometimes good, sometimes evil, nature of the imagination—that is, of Hollywood movies, and art in general. This theme has a way of simultaneously subverting and enlivening the religious elements in the movie. [Read more…]

Brooklyn: A Drama of Discernment

BrooklynOne of the hardest things in life is having two good choices that are completely exclusive of each other. It’s not a matter of picking a major in college, regretting it, and changing to another track; not a matter of taking a job at the wrong place and eventually finding your way to another one. Many choices—perhaps most choices—can be undone, however long and laborious the undoing.

But those decisions that are irreversible, unalterable, and unavoidable are the ones that cause the most anguish, especially when there’s much to recommend both of the alternatives (of course, at times we’re cursed with an array of good options, but for simplicity’s sake, we’ll keep it to two). In these dilemmas, we have an embarrassment of riches. The stakes are high: Pick one and lose the other forever.

Arguably, in this day and age, such dire consequences are less often the case than they used to be. What were historically lifelong commitments are now temporary engagements; wherever you are, you can get out pretty quickly. Affiliations, careers, and faiths are imminently interchangeable now.

Even marriage, which was once a permanent choice, has hardly the strength of a hair anymore, let alone a chain. You can divorce several times without stigma, though with somewhat more financial burden. And to our eternal shame, even children can be opted out of now, with the backing of a vast secular orthodoxy and the many huge industries that make a profit from it.

But that was not always so. There was a time when choosing meant you made a promise that honor and decency demanded you keep. In one of the loveliest movies to come along in a while, one of the loveliest characters to come along in an equally long while has to make such a choice—between two good things that she could never have predicted would present themselves. [Read more…]


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