Since becoming a patron of Filmspotting on Patreon, I’ve really enjoyed getting ad-free episodes and participating in the production-related chatter.
Recently they were looking for a clever title for a new segment that would be a chronological retrospective of a filmmaker’s work, in anticipation of revisiting Christopher Nolan’s work before Tenet debuts in July. (Assuming, I guess, that we all won’t still be quarantined.)
A few suggestions popped up: Filmography-spotting, Grand Tour, Box Set. Then I added my own: The Oeuvre-view.
I thought that name would have several merits: it’d be fun to listen to Adam and Josh try to pronounce it each time, ‘view’ is related to ‘spotting’, and its double entendre covers the purpose of the project, which is to provide an overview of a filmmaker’s oeuvre.
Cut to yesterday as I listened to the latest episode and heard my name mentioned, along with the fact that Oeuvre-view was the chosen one!
Adam wondered if the title was meant as a joke, but let me reassure you that I consider thinking up punny titles for things my solemn duty. Regardless, I’m honored it was selected and excited for the segment in general.
If you don’t already listen to Filmspotting, get on that. It’s great for both hardcore cinephiles and casual viewers looking for a deeper appreciation of movies old and new.
It’s been 15 years since Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was released, prompting Filmspotting to dedicate an entire episode to the trilogy. And it’s been 10 years since I wrote my own appreciation of the films and the fond memories surrounding them. My feelings haven’t changed since then. In fact I have two more memories to add, both involving my wife.
Upon meeting we quickly discovered our mutual appreciation of the trilogy. Ipso facto, one of our first dates was a marathon viewing of all three films—extended editions of course. This happened amidst a blizzard so we went for snowy walks between films. Probably because of this foundational event, we ended up infusing LOTR into our wedding ceremony a few years later. We used “Concerning Hobbits” on repeat for the processional, then transitioned into the first part of “The Breaking of the Fellowship” (see below) for Jenny’s entrance.
Reader, I cried. Whether due to my beautiful bride or the music or the combination of both, it was a peak moment on the best day of my life.
So yeah, Lord of the Rings still means a lot to me. (Watching Lindsay Ellis dissect the tragedy of The Hobbit movies reinforced this all the more.) I have no idea what to expect from Amazon’s forthcoming TV series dedicated to Middle-earth, but it won’t affect my regard for the books or Peter Jackson’s original trilogy.
Top 5 Lord of the Rings moments
Picking just five moments out of 11.5 hours of film is a fool of a Took’s errand, but here are mine, in chronological order through the series.
This scene has been memed to death, but that doesn’t negate the sheer power of Gandalf’s last stand in Moria. For someone who knew nothing of the trilogy when I saw The Fellowship of the Ring, this was a true gut punch.
Sean Bean, also a meme all-star and cinematic death champion, lends pathos and grace to the first true death in the fellowship. Boromir’s character arc might be the most interesting one in the first film.
From the aforementioned “Breaking of the Fellowship” scene in which Frodo sets off with Samwise. The quote is originally from a scene in Moria with a vastly different tone, but it’s repurposed here to stunning effect. (See also: “Alas, that these evil days should be mine,” a quote by King Théoden in the books that didn’t make the movie but expresses a similar sentiment.)
Eowyn’s later “I am no man” line gets all the (deserved) love, but this moment sets that one up. The princess, eager to fight but finally aware of the gravity of battle, summons the strength for Merry and herself, who both fight for more than themselves.
1) The Lives of Others (technically 2006, but released in the U.S. in 2007)
5) Michael Clayton
6) No Country for Old Men
7) Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street
10) 3:10 to Yuma
As you can see, There Will Be Blood did not make the list. I remember in the theater being impressed but bored, which was not the case for its Oscar “rival” that year, No Country for Old Men. Because of that I predicted Blood wouldn’t win Best Picture; compared to the tight plotting and propulsive thrills of No Country, its sprawling scope and tonal opacity would be a tough sell in a popularity contest.
I’d still give Best Picture to No Country. But a second viewing of Blood brought it way up in my estimation. What P.T. Anderson’s films lack in scrutability they more than make up for in production design, soundtrack, and acting prowess. What superlative could I use for Daniel Day-Lewis that hasn’t already been beaten to death with a bowling pin? The man is mesmerizing. In a 158-minute movie, I couldn’t take my eyes off him for one of them. He shares MVP with the cinematographer Robert Elswit, who similarly has earned the hyperbole around his work.
So where would I rank There Will Be Blood now? Making a new list without rewatching all the films I rated highly but haven’t seen since then, like Waitress and Michael Clayton, is a bit of a fool’s errand.But as it stands now, including the 2007 films I’ve seen since making the list, here’s what it looks like:
1) The Lives of Others
4) No Country for Old Men
7) There Will Be Blood
8) Michael Clayton
10) Into the Wild
Sorry, Juno, 3:10 to Yuma, and Sweeney Todd, but I had to make room for There Will Be Blood,Into the Wild, and Munyurangabo. Honorable mention goes to The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Hairspray, and Enchanted. Pretty great year overall!
Tangerine as an opportunity for reconciliation. Top Hat as a jump for joy. 12 Years A Slave as a song of lament. In his new book Movies Are Prayers: How Films Voice Our Deepest Longings, Josh Larsen performs what he calls “cultural refraction,” revealing how the many colors of prayer match quite comfortably with movies of all kinds. I got an early copy of the book to review, but as is the case with many of the books I review as a librarian, this was one I’d be reading no matter what.
As with movies, there are many genres of prayer, and Larsen dwells on nine of them: praise, yearning, lament, anger, confession, reconciliation, obedience, meditation, and joy. Each of these chapters could be books in themselves, given how many movies are out there and how rich and layered the concept of prayer is. But Larsen, taking a specifically Christian tack, focuses on how those types of prayer and their analogous movies speak to the creation-fall-redemption-restoration trajectory of the Bible and the Christian faith it inspires. Through this prism, the central miracle in Children of Men provokes an awe-inducing response to incarnation. The violent anger of Fight Club is a primal scream against a fallen world. And the “holy nonsense” of The Muppets shows that sometimes joy manifests itself in silly and inexplicable ways.
“I can offer lament to God, and often do,” Larsen writes. “But sometimes the movies do it for me.” How true this is, and not only for laments. When I find myself unable to articulate a feeling or grasp at a deep truth, I often reach for a movie (or album or book) to act as a kind of semiconductor, allowing that electric feeling I get from something meaningful to flow freely and charge me up.
But not only do films, like prayer, “voice our deepest longings”, they both also demand thoughtful response, Larsen writes, whether in a sanctuary or theater:
In both instances, we’ve set aside our time and our space to gather in community and join our concentration. Often the intention is simply to escape the world (and don’t forget, church serves this function too), but frequently we gather to apply our intellectual, emotional, and artistic prowess toward considering the world and our purpose within it.
I first encountered Larsen in his role as editor of Think Christian, where I’ve written a few articles over the years. From there I learned that he co-hosts Filmspotting, a weekly film podcast that now automatically goes to the top of my queue. Having been a regular Filmspotting listener for several years now, it was especially rewarding to read about films that I encountered along with him and Adam through the podcast, like the Apu trilogy and Tangerine.
Larsen puts forward one film that he believes encompasses each of the prayer modes and embodies the entire journey from creation to fall to redemption and restoration. (Read the book to find out which one.) It got me thinking about which other movies could qualify. There are probably many that fit this mold in some way, but I think Toy Story is a good one. Larsen mentions it in the chapter on prayers of confession, but I think it fits in the creation-restoration arc nicely. Not only does the film begin within Andy’s imaginative creation story, but there follows a literal fall (with style) and banishment from the toys’ Eden. (Woody/Buzz gets very Jacob/Esau for a while there.) Woody goes through a process of yearning, lament, and anger as he deals with Buzz’s incursion into his previously idyllic existence, just as Buzz endures his “not a flying toy” existential crisis. Both humbled after moments of confession, they reconcile and work together to return to their rightful place in Andy’s life.
Too often when “Christian” and “movies” come together, a didactic censoriousness and disordered view of art follow. Larsen takes the opposite approach. You’ll see no mention of Left Behind or God’s Not Dead, but you will see George Bailey struggling to be obedient in It’s a Wonderful Life and Alvin’s motorized meditations in The Straight Story and hushed yearningin In the Mood for Love. As his true in his reviews, he brings a generous, exploratory spirit to cinema, seeing the form’s good and beautiful and attempting to understand the bad and ugly. This generosity comes out in the book’s benediction:
As we watch films, then, let’s enter the theater as we would a sanctuary where a prayer is about to be offered. Let’s listen to the prayer carefully and graciously before we add our own words. Let’s be a congregation, not a censor board. Let’s be open to the possibility that as movie watchers, we’re privileged eavesdroppers on a dialogue between God and the creative beings he made.
So rare it is that ardent believers and dedicated cinephiles can bond over the same book that Movies Are Prayers should be considered a minor miracle.
Finally watched all of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955)and Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). Filmspotting’s recent Satyajit Ray marathon compelled me to finally give them a go. The Criterion editions are, no surprise, beautifully rendered. I’d heard of the trilogy first from Image‘s Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list, which I’ve used along with Top 100 lists from AFI and Time magazine as a guide for films to seek out. (At this writing I’ve seen 92 of AFI’s list, 51 of Time, and 47 of Image; we could debate the merits of these lists all day, but they are undeniably handy guides for pursuing quality cinema.)
The movies do revolve around Apu, but his mother Karuna was as much the star of the first two as Apu was. I suspected this was the case after watching Pather Panchali, but her role in Aparajito confirmed it. She’s often exasperated or stressed in her role as a homemaker struggling to provide and care for her two children in rural 1920s Bengal, but moments of delight and grace sneak through as well. Then, as tragedies mount and modernity creeps in, her struggle intensifies just as Apu ages into a bright and aspirational teen. His visits home dwindle along with Karuna’s health; she doesn’t disclose her illness to Apu, nor her despair at his increasing distance.
This culminates in a crushing scene when Apu, on a rare visit home, fades to sleep as Karuna peppers him with questions. “When you earn money, will you arrange treatments for me?” she says. “Apu? Will you, Apu?” No answer. Whether she was expecting answers or just needed to voice her concerns, the look on her face takes a devastating turn through concern, fear, and desperation before arriving at resignation.
Apur Sansar brings the trilogy back under Apu’s domain, following his perambulations as a struggling writer and reluctant evolution as a bridegroom and father. Despite being closer in age to the Apu of Apur Sansar, I was less enveloped in this story than those of the first two movies, but still felt satisfied by the trilogy’s full-circle conclusion.
The lists from Time and Image group all three films together, but I favor the approach Sight & Sound takes on their Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, which separates Pather Panchali from the group (just as they rightfully split up The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Though the second two films fill out the rest of Apu’s story, Pather is the strongest self-contained film, and the story I could most envision returning to again.
It’s really a shame Jeff Nichols got bounced in the second round of the Filmspotting Madness directors bracket. Unlike the NCAA tournament, where success is tangible and stats-driven, there is no one way to account for which director is better than the other. Everyone voter is left to his or her own interpretation and taste. The one I’ve used is based on what the Filmspotting guys have put forth: you’re standing in a theater lobby and two films are showing, one from each director. You choose one and the other director’s disappears, his future career extinguished.
Mad love to Scorsese, who gave us Raging Bull and Taxi Driver among other greats, but I’m going with Jeff Nichols. If a sadistic, crisis-inducing challenge like Filmspotting Madness is about the present and future of a director’s work—and to me it is—then I believe myself compelled to choose Nichols, whose small but undeniably strong oeuvre gives me great hope for his future over Scorsese’s, whose will be a lot shorter and less reliably compelling.
So it seems fitting I had the choice this weekend of seeing either Everybody Wants Some!!, the latestfrom Richard Linklater (another Filmspotting Madness erstwhile contender) and Midnight Special, the latest from Jeff Nichols. A huge fan of Linklater, I knew I’d see Everybody eventually, but I knew I had to see Midnight Special, simply because of Nichols’ name and the little I knew about the film. That’s as good a test as any.
As is often the case Matt Zoller Seitz was spot-on about Midnight Special. He expresses a sort of baffled delight that a movie like this could exist amidst so many other deafening superhero smash fests. Its “marvelous energy” propels its quickly sketched but deeply felt characters through a story that’s as lovingly familiar as it is unique. A boy with otherworldly powers, his loyal father (Michael Shannon) who supposedly kidnapped him from his former apocalyptic cult, and the government agents trying to find him all are in pursuit toward a mysterious yet significant destination.
The first act is something else. Tense, bold, determined. We’re dropped in media res and trusted to keep up. Kudos to Nichols for this choice in structure, but also (I’m assuming) for fighting studio execs to have to preserve it against some origin story filler. The power is in the mystery, in the putting together of the pieces as they’re given.
The film slackens as it goes, however, especially in the scenes that take us away from the boy and his escorts, who have a kind of enraptured determination you could imagine the apostle Paul feeling after seeing the light on the road to Damascus. Nichols seems very aware of that story, given the righteousness he’s imbued in these characters and the mission they’re on. I stayed with the movie throughout, though, because how could I not? From idea to execution, Midnight Special is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters.
Nichols couldn’t have found a better muse/avatar than Michael Shannon, whose quiet, self-assured, and focused presence has for me become inseparable from the Nichols films he’s been in, which is all of them. (Shotgun Stories remains his best—find it if you can.) And he’ll be in Loving, Nichols’ next film, coming out this November. Not sure if I’ll have to pick between two great directors again to see it, but he’s got good odds if I do.
It was a pleasure and an honor to attend Filmspotting’s 2015 Wrap Party at the Mayne Stage on January 9. I’ve been an avid listener for a few years, and finally became a regular donor last year, so with that evening off I jumped at the chance to go to a live show.
A few days before the show they emailed attendees to solicit listener picks for Scene of the Year for possible inclusion in the show. I knew there was a chance they’d read my email or put it on the big screen, but didn’t think much of it. Then suddenly, surprisingly, during the Listeners Picks portion of the show Josh called out my name. Oh shit, I thought. Tyler Greene of WBEZ was sprinting upstairs to where I was in the balcony to hand me the mic, and at once my voice was booming out to the sellout crowd.
With no time to formulate my thoughts, I scrambled to remain articulate about my submission, which was from Brooklyn. My answer is at 1:35:00 in episode #569 (though you should listen to the whole thing and subscribe while you’re at it). I got through it well enough, but I wish I’d recalled more of what I’d submitted in writing:
My scene of the year takes place in a small-town Irish dance hall, not five minutes into the exceptional film Brooklyn. Eilis, soon bound for a new life in 1950s America, watches as her friend disappears into the dance crowd with a partner, leaving her alone, on the outside looking in at what will soon be her old life. The camera holds on her face, which betrays a tender bittersweetness that characterizes the whole of John Crowley’s exquisite and humane film. Even while still at home she is homesick, a struggle she will have to endure long after she sails away from Ireland and attempts to forge a new meaning of home.
Anyway, it was a fun night all around. I went alone, but ended up sitting next to two guys with whom I chatted about the year in film. Thanks to the Filmspotting crew and WBEZ for putting on the event, and for manufacturing a podcast that is intelligent, well-rounded, and edited. (Seriously, I can’t overemphasize how wonderful it is that the show is thoughtfully edited and not just a stream of talking.) See you in my iTunes feed.