The Cathedral-Builders: Movie notes

The Cathedral-Builders: Movie notes July 18, 2016

In chronological order of when I saw them. The cathedrals are toward the end.

Vic and Flo Saw a Bear: Formally-daring suspense flick about a lesbian returning home from prison; and yet somehow this didn’t grab me. Victor Morton loved it and argues that it is, in a subtle way, about patriarchy. I can see that, and the subtlety of that is really powerful: The “main villain” is not a man, but men lurk on the edges of the narrative, wielding power. To me the film often lacked tension and I didn’t relate to the characters even when I felt sorry for them; but that may say more about me than about the movie. The scene with the young guy asking questions about the home furnishings was a standout for me, a great image of power and objectification.

The Sleeping Room: This much less innovative basic horror flick, otoh, really grabbed me and told a compelling story about misogyny and sexual violence. It’s set at Brighton–gorgeously photographed–where a Victorian brothel is being restored, and old secrets are being dredged up. Both scary and creepy. The only down side is that there are two endings and the first one is better by far.

Dawning: Father, stepmother, and adult children are having a tense cabin vacation when a battered incoherent dude stumbles into the house and takes them hostage. This is a family drama with supernatural trappings and I admit it didn’t work for me. The family secrets and angers were a bit too familiar and the characters, frankly, too annoying. Also the music isn’t great, yet it’s blared for shock value at the beginning and end.

Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation. What a weird movie! This is a documentary about the making of Sagrada Familia and yet it is bizarrely, insistently atheist. Or post-theist: So much of the voiceover is all, “When I was a child, I believed. I believed that man was made in the image of God…” or, later, “The Greeks built their temples. The Egyptians built pyramids. The Muslims built mosques; the Christians, cathedrals. What do we build today?”

Who is this “we”? Like I am pretty sure even secular liberals know that Muslims still build the occasional mosque.  There’s a deeply confusing bit where one expert seems to conflate the Trinity with the Holy Family; the Black Madonna is referred to as a “goddess.” There’s a sarcasm-cut from crowds cheering Pope Benedict XVI to a talking head saying, “We have turned divinity into an idol,” and there’s just so, so much troweling on the whole “we have outgrown God” shtik. Mystery is used to sanitize Jesus.

The actual cathedral is stunning! The stories we hear about the controversies surrounding its construction and design are fascinating. The one sculptor who converted to Catholicism is not only interesting on the subject of sculpting (the stone is his “master” and he must work in obedience to it), not only eccentric and endearing on the subject of his conversion, but able to give a cogent critique of the documentary itself: Don’t look at Gaudi, he says–look at what Gaudi was looking at, which is God.

Toward the end the voiceover intones, “What survives all our cold adult rationality is a longing. A search for beauty, wholeness, belonging, clarity, silence. For transformation.” That is true, and moving, and it’s also worth noting the longings this educated Western voice excludes: for mercy, or justice.

The Elephant Man: Speaking of mercy and justice. Here’s another cathedral-builder, whose actions may be much more similar to Gaudi’s than you would expect. This David Lynch joint feels so much like a ’30s Universal horror, and I loved, loved, loved it. A frighteningly deformed man who has been so thoroughly abused that he is afraid to speak is discovered by an ambitious doctor; the “Elephant Man” adventures through Victorian high society, attracts the attention of royalty, is used for everybody’s terrible purposes, and slowly discovers and asserts his humanity and dignity.

This was named as one of Image‘s top films about mercy and you can see why. It also illustrates the difficulty of drawing a line between mercy and justice. John Merrick, the central character (played with touching shyness and even effeteness by John Hurt), deserves so much better than what he’s received in life; and yet restoring him to his rightful place as a human being requires a mindset of patience and mercy. The movie condemns its audience: I found myself eagerly leaning forward when I thought we might finally get a glimpse of the guy’s deformity, and we all cheered when a villain got his comeuppance even though the cruel have as much inalienable human dignity as the ugly.

It’s a psychologically subtle movie. It shows our vanity (including Merrick’s vanity!), our lack of self-awareness, our self-justifications. Gotta say that when you see society scrambling to react to Merrick with either disgust or careful, performative acceptance, I was like, “Oh I get it, he’s a gay Christian!” (Gooba gabba, man, one of us.)

This movie also worked for me as an utterly sincere Christian parable. I know the ending challenges that–I wish the ending were different, frankly, it bothers me a lot and while I kind of get why you’d do that I wish Lynch hadn’t–but there’s so much Christian symbolism, both explicit (the cathedral) and implicit (the freaks’ funeral/baptism procession to the Channel). I’m really glad I watched this with a group so we could argue about it afterward and point out things I missed.

I Cover the Waterfront: Brisk pre-noir newspaper tale in which a reporter woos brassy Claudette Colbert in order to expose her father as a smuggler and human trafficker. I liked this a lot more than I expected to, honestly. The lilting, gloomy gray waterfront is beautiful even in the low-quality version I watched, the plot is twisty and satisfying, and the human costs of the romance are given a lot more reality than in other flicks of this type. It’s been a while since I watched His Girl Friday, for example, but I remember being intensely turned off by the use of death row as a macguffin. Here the Chinese illegal immigrants aren’t characters, but they’re also not simply plot furniture: The smuggler is providing a service they desperately desire, even as he’s also treating their lives with shocking indifference.

Lots of blandly aggressive dialogue (the obnoxiousness of the men here reminded me of Home Alone! Did the Depression really make people talk to one another this way?), some sexist perversity I would’ve really loved without quite as much sexism, and some truly memorable images like the giant swaying shark. Much, much better than it had to be.


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