My chief occupation this Memorial Day was doing things to prevent my lungs from making interesting squeaky sounds (no, really: the squeaking was fascinating — and harmless, as it happened, which adds to the appeal), and that means watching movies. These are the ones that are worth your time, and I’m looking at you, Julie Davis.
A decade or so ago I inherited a collection of poetry, one of those mass-market-intellectual anthologies that was so popular back when all we had for the internet was Reader’s Digest. It had been a big year for death in our extended family, and I couldn’t help but notice that the winning themes for Poems We Still Read 500 Years Later were, in order from least to most popular: Love, Death, and Love-n-Death. I explained this to my son when he had a poetry assignment recently, and then suggested Nutella as a topic, since that hit at least one if not all of the winning categories. I haven’t checked his grade, but if he got an A, you can thank me.
Still Life is about death, and about the inherent dignity — the loveability — of people who have no one to mourn for them. It’s a quiet film, you’d call it art house except it’s thoughtful without being jaded or “provocative.” The love interest doesn’t show up until halfway through the film and she hardly has any lines. The visuals would make Hitchcock gleam with pride. What is it, really? It’s Chesterton gone deft. If Catholics could make movies, this is what we’d make.
If you have to teach a class on the works of mercy to a group of artist-intellectuals, invest in a half-case of decent red and show this film. Communion of Saints and Burying the Dead never had it so good. Brilliant film. Loved it.
Imagine, for a moment, that religious tension in a country like Egypt was a complex and subtle topic. Take it a step further, and pretend that the faith of individual souls could be full of nuance and struggle, but without being reduced to a wish-washy indifferentism. Throw into that a culture that is not the U.S. of A., but harbors a patriotism just as profound (and as easily trivialized) as any heroism we commemorated this Memorial Day.
The cinematic genius of Excuse My French is in drawing fine lines with heavy markers. The opening narration is silly-to-ironic; the scenes unfold in a series of exaggerated gestures, at the hinge moment fully descending to an actual staged morality tale; the thematic use of color and texture on the sets is so frank it could be a Clorox commercial. It is as if the producers were subject to some kind of cinematic reality show, in which they were told to make a movie using three high-school drama techniques drawn out of a hat.
Except they win the show. Irony is used to create depth without pretension. Blunt morality-tale moments bring forth the twist and tension of religious struggle. The same handful of vividly drawn sets are presented and re-presented until the overblown contrasts pick up, by dint of steady progression of plot and character, something of the unity that is the layered fabric of communal life in a pluralistic society.
Beautifully rendered, and suitable for all audiences except the trope-dependent.
This is a Shirley Temple short about the conflict between a teenage son and his father over the purchase of a dog. It’s slapstick, and my eight-year-old loved the twist ending, when silliness reached its peak. Worth a watch just for the opportunity to see how very different the norms of family life and family roles were portrayed on film three generations ago. You can learn a lot by seeing what people think is funny, and how they write their stock characters.
For a similar educational briefing in a longer format, take Joseph Susanka’s advice and watch It Happened One Night. Fun film, if you like romantic comedy. If you want to write novels, this is your primer in how to put a plot together and keep the story moving and the suspense ramping up until the end. Classic.
This is a French film, which means there is obligatory fornication. You also get sexual harassment as a norm, and if I recall correctly a bit of foul language as well. Those caveats not to be brushed aside lightly, if you are a looking for a film that digs in with gusto into the reality of grief, mourning, and the darkness of being widowed early in life, here you go.
Also French, so approximately the same caveats apply, but with a much lighter touch, because this one’s been funded in part by regional tourism boards. The concept is: Good For Nothing Son Returns Home to Village to Help with Crisis, Takes Up Family Business, Discovers Value of Hard Work, Stability, Home and Community. Lots of landscape shots funded by tourism board, which is not a bad thing, though these particular landscapes can’t hold a candle to Le Papillon or My Father’s Glory (still, if you want to send me to do some investigating, I’m game).
But bless the French, though they might have difficulties with purity and marital fidelity, they never ever cook with saccharine.
It’s a feel-good morality tale for curmudgeons, in which we learn to appreciate the fact that we might have learned a few of our nastiest habits from our dysfunctional family of origin, but hey, maybe you can bargain for free rent in an abandoned farmhouse up the hill a few miles, since the right amount of distance is the just ticket when getting along with the relatives in close quarters isn’t happening.
What I loved most: This one wins the award for best use of a brilliantly-directed, non-ironic, authentic-but-not-heartfelt prayer scene, which serves as the hinge on which the plot opens towards resolution. You never saw so much insight packed into an irreligious religious moment. If only Catholics made films. Sheesh.