26/08: Fritz Lang

Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: an okie gardener
Christianity Today has a very interesting article on the Austrian film director Fritz Lang as a part of their series on filmakers and faith. Lang made films first in pre-Nazi Germany (e.g. Metropolis, M, Die Niebelungen, the Dr. Mabuse films) and then in the U.S. (e.g. The Big Heat, Scarlet Street)

10/04: Good Friday

Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: an okie gardener
The Layman Online links to this medical and engineering account of the crucifixion of Jesus. Written a few years ago, it exams the movie portrayal in The Passion of the Christ.
Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
The 1986 film, Hoosiers, opens on a dark and lonely road on the verge of dawn. Off in the distance, two headlights drive toward us in the night. Black is giving way to gray and soon the sun rises over a two-lane highway. As rays of sunlight break through the clouds, we watch a series of shots from various angles tracking the mid-century American sedan cruising purposefully by cornfields, barns, silos, country stores, gas pumps, and boys playing basketball.

Driving down country roads lined with crossed-top telephone poles and decorated with bright-colored fall leaves, the car stops at a crossroads with a church prominent in the background. After a momentary pause, the driver proceeds. Has he found the right path?


Norman Dale has driven through the night to get to the one-blinking-stop-light town of Hickory, Indiana, where he has anxiously agreed to coach a basketball team at a high school with an enrollment of 64 students. Standing in the tradition of a thousand small-town schools built all over the United States during the first half of the twentieth century, the campus fits perfectly within the period of the film; but to our modern eyes, the old school is an anachronism.

"You're not the new coach?" asks Myra Fleener. She is strikingly pretty in a mature teacherly way--but she is all business. "I was expecting someone younger." Her glance is all-knowing and unapproving.

Later, she observes accusingly: "A man your age comes to a place like this, either he's running away from something or he has nowhere else to go." She is spot-on.

She watches him warily as he moves on up the stairs to find his old friend, Cletus, the principal who has sent for him.

"Norman Dale? I hardly recognized you," Cletus says.

It's been a long time since their days at the teacher's college. "I appreciate the opportunity," Norman says. "You've got a clean slate here," Cletus assures him.

Early on, Norman Dale remains a mystery. Mostly, we know that he is here and eager for "one last chance." Eventually, we discover that Dale had led a college team to a national championship twelve years earlier before the NCAA barred him for life for misconduct.

His rival for the Hickory coaching job wonders: "I don't know why Cletus drug your tired old bones in here."

Why? This is a story about regeneration and forgiveness. The tag line for the film: They needed a second chance to finish first. Dale is merely the first in a series of characters who are in need of redemption.

Dale enlists the help of the town drunk, Wilbur "Shooter" Flatch, who lives in a cabin in the woods and is something of a basketball oracle. Shooter is also the father of one of Dale's players, who sees his dad as a hopeless embarrassment. "When is the last time someone gave him a chance?" Dale asks. Pushed to get clean and sober, Shooter mounts an unsteady journey back to respectability; like most of us in the real world, he remains a work in progress throughout the film.

Dale soon finds that the entire town (less Myra Fleener) believes that the key to the season will be enticing Jimmy Chitwood to play with the team. By most accounts, Chitwood is the best school-boy basketball player any of these rabid fans have ever seen. But in the aftermath of a series of personal tragedies, Jimmy has withdrawn from the community and has lost his love for game.

Dale does not push Jimmy, and he encourages the fans to be patient and appreciate the current team "for who they are--not who they are not."

But basketball is the civic religion in Hickory, and they are hungry to break out of their long history of mediocrity. Ironically, the community seems determined to resist any changes to its basketball orthodoxy. They are devout believers in the zone defense and shooting the basketball at every opportunity. They are skeptical and hostile to Dale, a peculiar and perplexing prophet of a new system.

Even his old friend Cletus has his doubts: "I'm trying hard to believe you know what you're doing."

After the rocky start on the court, and increasing consternation from the townspeople, the citizens call a town meeting to decide the fate of the embattled coach. The situation looks dire for Dale. Cletus has taken ill and can no longer offer him protection. Myra Fleener, now acting principal and starting to warm to Dale, calls for the crowd to give him another chance. But the throng clamors for his dismissal.

We are told that twelve legions of angels stood at the ready to rescue the Savior during his time of misery. In keeping with the divine plan, the suffering Christ never issued a call for celestial assistance. In the case of Norman Dale, Jimmy Chitwood intercedes of his own accord. Jimmy has had a change of heart. Dale has won him over with his style and sincerity. Jimmy will rejoin the team, if the town agrees to keep the coach; they are only too pleased to make Jimmy happy.

From there on, it is nothing but net. Success. Enthusiastic cheering crowds. Even the coach’s former tormentors come around.

Myra Fleener and Norman Dale, at a stage in life where they have reason to believe passion has passed them by, find one another and experience personal regeneration.

The team reaches its potential and makes a brilliant run into the playoffs, culminating with a come-from-behind win in the state championship game against a big-city powerhouse.

Most importantly, Coach Dale connects with his humanity, happily coming to understand that his love for his players is much greater than his prodigious desire to win.

More than anything else, Hoosiers is a story of hope and possibility. In the midst of our failure, there is hope for redemption, growth, love, and meaning. No matter where we are in life, we are people with potential. We should take great comfort from the knowledge that we are people perpetually in the process of becoming.
Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
I have long argued that the decade of the 1970s was a golden age for filmmaking. Think about some of the Best Picture winners during the decade: Patton, both Godfathers, The Sting, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, and Annie Hall. Even more astounding, think about some of the films that did not win Best Picture: (a mere sampling) The Way We Were, The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon, The Last Detail, Jaws, M*A*S*H, Dog Day Afternoon, Chinatown, Love Story, and the list goes on. In 1976 alone, the non-winners included: All the President's Men, Bound for Glory, Network, Taxi Driver, The Outlaw Josey Wales, and The Omen (the latter two were not even nominated for Best Picture).

Why were the 1970s so golden? It was a fortuitous end of an era. For years, great talents learned and labored under the efficient but stifling studio system. In addition, these artists operated within the restrictive Hays production code, which policed motion picture content to insure "wholesome entertainment" (read the code here). When old Hollywood collapsed, the restrictions evaporated and a new generation emerged. These screenwriters and filmmakers, generally trained under the discipline of the ancien regime, felt free to experiment outside the old envelope, and their genius flowered. The results are the plethora of masterpieces cited above.

An aside: What happens when a generation emerges without training and no deeply embedded sense of propriety to which they must conform and against which they must inevitably rebel? Now appearing at your local video store. Sadly, there is a big difference in the ability to bend and/or break through the old standards and having no standards at all. Our current generation of filmmakers suffers from too much freedom and a palpable lack of cultivation.

I mentioned the non-winners from 1976. Do you remember the winner? Rocky.

Rocky was not an especially rebellious film. Of course, there is coarse language and implicit sexual intimacy outside of marriage; there are sympathetic criminals, and there are times when right and wrong is not clearly defined. But, in its essence, Rocky is the classic underdog narrative; it is a plot that goes back to the beginning of story telling and the halcyon days of Hollywood. In fact, in an almost quaint fashion, Rocky tells the utterly contrived tale of a club fighter who gets a title shot and, more importantly, an opportunity to reclaim his life.

» Read More

Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
Way back in May, when the grass was green and every club had a chance to win the pennant, the Okie Gardener offered an excellent post on his relationship with the game of baseball; he improved it and re-released it recently: "The End of Another Regular Season." Back in the spring, the Gardener challenged me to name and defend my favorite baseball movie. I promised to step to the plate before the weather grew cold in Central Texas. It was 90 degrees yesterday, but a cold front moved in last night, and the boys of summer have given way to the Fall Classic. It is now or never.

Generally, I enjoy most movies about baseball, even bad ones; The Babe Ruth Story (1948) with William Bendix and Major League (1989) are two of my favorites in the latter category.

But there are a host of classic well-made baseball movies, so let's concentrate on the great ones.

Some of my favorites (in alphabetical order):

» Read More

Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
Is the brain trust at Pixar surreptitiously transmitting conservative social messages encoded within its otherwise innocuously entertaining product? In 2004, The Incredibles told the story of Bob and Helen Parr, two superheroes forced unjustly into suburban conformity and banality at the hands of a litigious society run amok. Locked in a straight-jacket existence, Bob tilted at his profit-obsessed employer, railed against social-leveling and longed for his halcyon days as "Mr. Incredible." Stretched in all directions, Helen attempted to maintain stability, instill a firm sense of morality in her three children and keep her family intact.

In the end, the Parr’s reclaimed their exceptional status, discovered new-found strength in one another and defeated a diabolically heartless global terrorist network. As we watched The Incredibles come together as a family, we came to understand the beauty of family synergy over individual self-fulfillment and the value of encouraging excellence over societal-enforced equality.

Pixar rolled out Cars on Friday, which immediately roared away from the weekend competition at the box-office. The film features qualities that we have come to expect from this brand: funny lines, endearing characters, memorable voice performances and artistry that is simply stunning and unparalleled. And, once again, Pixar offers an entertaining story with some serious overtones. The tale of Interstate 40 and Route 66, in which America carved an interstate highway through the landscape and left a severed community in its wake, serves as a backdrop to the story of success-oriented Lightening McQueen and his personal search for meaning.

Traveling to his all-important rendezvous with ultimate “success,” McQueen, a self-absorbed young race car in a hurry, falls off the edge of the world (in this case the interstate) and lands someplace in the Great Southwest. As he tries in vain to merge back into the fast lane, the “every car” learns that there is more to life than getting where you think you want to go.

Somehow he finds the “true, the good, and the beautiful” along the way in a world he never knew existed. We learn that sacrificing tradition, community and respect for human ecology, while tempting in the short term, has a price: spiritual emptiness. The lesson is clear: effeciency over community is a recipe for moral bankruptcy.

Post Script

Allow me a curious coupling and personal disclosure: I have a recurring nightmare that the MSM will expose C-SPAN, another one of my favorites, and Pixar as agents of the vast rightwing conspiracy. The forces of apathy and decadence will realize that the folks at C-SPAN and Pixar are industriously and insidiously embedding traditionalism in mainstream culture, and the offenders “will be dealt with” accordingly. Some of the reviews of Cars make me wonder if the word is not getting out.

I reassure myself with this comforting thought: Brian Lamb and John Lasseter continue to be welcomed into our homes as inoffensive figures working toward positive change and in alliance with us (no matter who we are). Isn’t that a wonderful thought? Perhaps there is hope for the soul of America. Maybe we are a people united in our desperate search for virtue, community and values bigger than ourselves.
Category: Films & Ideas
Posted by: A Waco Farmer
I finally screened Good Night, and Good Luck and Capote on DVD (in fact, I purchased them sight-unseen). The following represents my thoughts on Good Night, and Good Luck (with thoughts on Capote to follow at some undetermined date).

In re Good Night, and Good Luck: I should warn you that I liked it.

Good Night, and Good Luck is a morality play. Evil is clearly defined. The forces of good wage the noble and difficult fight and win in the end. Along the way, there are sacrifices to be made and lessons to be learned and advice to be dispensed. I love a good morality play.

The main villain in Good Night, and Good Luck is not Joseph McCarthy, although he is a bad man (and he does a fine job of indicting himself in archival footage). Good Night, and Good Luck is, more than anything else, a jeremiad against American complacency and the coma-inducing "wires and lights in a box," television.

The story depicts the tension between objective reporting, crusading journalism, entertainment, selling advertising and corporate control in the TV News business.

In the end, after saving due process and the American way from a wily and powerful malefactor, Edward R. Murrow and his "See It Now" crew (our heroes) are assigned to the Sunday afternoon graveyard. Fred Friendly, noting the success of Uncle Miltie's "Texaco Star Theater," wryly rues: "You should have worn a dress."

» Read More