The Seven Most Overrated Movies I Can Think Of at the Moment

These movies mostly qualified as highly rated by being on one list or another of critics’ favorites. That means a lot of people who get paid to do so think these movies are truly great, but I watched them and I think they fall somewhere short of “best ever.”  I reserve the right to add to this in the future, as I know there are lot of overrated movies I thankfully haven’t gotten around to being disappointed by.

7. The Shining. Watching Jack Nicholson go mad is mildly creepy and amusing but not all that scary. Watching Shelly Duvall watch him go mad is mildly irritating but not scary. Watching other various scary things you don’t understand unless you’ve read the book is mildly unsettling, but not scary. So, I guess you could say it’s the Citizen Kane of unscary horror films.

8. Pulp Fiction. The Seinfeld movie: a movie about nothing. Is it funny, scary, shocking and at times compelling? Yes. Do I love the funky chronology? Yes. Did I ever I tire of the overly clever and ironic dialog Tarantino loves to write? Eventually. But is it the greatest film of our generation? No: for that a movie’s got to be about something, have something to say about something. But this is, to quote Jules, “one of the ones that became nothing.”

5. 2001: A Space Odyssey. This movie is huge for me – seeing it when I was kid was monumental – but a recent viewing, wherein I nodded off while Dave was flying through some flashing Andy Warhol paintings,  forced me to see that, as good and groundbreaking as it is, it still does not deserve the place it has been given by critics.

4. Some like it Hot. In a word, oversold. Too much praise as one of, if not the funniest movies ever, builds quite a bit of expectation, and promises more than it delivers. Especially if you waited until you were well into your forties as I did. Lots of the humor seems pretty juvenile now. If it weren’t for Marilyn Monroe, would this movie be so revered? Watch a Pink Panther movie instead.

3. The Producers. This movie suffers from the same oversell as Some Like it Hot. When you’re told from birth that this the most hilarious, side-splitting work of comic genius the human race has ever beheld, you expect a lot of laughs. What I got instead was one really good laugh, from a scene/segment many of us have seen more than once, and which was, I’ll grant, even funnier when seen in the context of the whole film. But the rest of the movie, not so much.

2. The Rules of the Game. I love Jean Renoir, and don’t think La Grande Illusion is overrated. And I don’t hate this movie. I like it and recommend it, but it has been ranked very high, even number one on some lists of the best movies of all time. It’s good, but not that good. Come on. Yes, the French give it the number one spot, but remember: number two is The Nutty Professor.

1. M*A*S*H. Hands down, this is number one. I hate this movie. I consider it one of the most deplorable well-known movies I’ve seen. I realize this really sets me apart from the vast majority movie buffs, and even family and friends. Look, the movie has some laughs, but there is just no getting around what a smug, callous, mean, cooler-than-thou stench hangs over this movie. I’ve seen the movie probably three times in my life, and each time was more unpleasant than the last. I find it unwatchable now. It’s the sort of film that actually seems to detract from my humanity just by watching it. I feel something has been taken, and it isn’t just two hours.

I recall that when I saw it as a young person, I was horrified by the shower scene with Sally Kellerman (Houlihan), and utterly perplexed that audiences laughed at it. That pretty much exemplifies what I dislike about the whole thing: it celebrates bullies (The Swampmen), more than any movie I can think of. Sure, they’re hip, free-wheeling and ironic. But it’s the worst instance of bullies: Altman has you rooting for them, because being cool, smart and funny makes them superior to their victims. Barf.

.

Laugh Your Life | Part Two

Kick over the wall ’cause government’s to fall
How can you refuse it?
Let fury have the hour, anger can be power
D’you know that you can use it?
-Strummer/Jones
Clampdown

Free Radical

Situated with my friends, with a job and nice apartment in Ballard, I wanted to do more than work and watch movies. First,  I wanted to find and join some leftist activists. In particular, I wanted get involved in the No Nukes/antiwar movement. Somehow I was dissuaded. I became disenchanted by the prospect, or distracted, somehow. I only remember two small incidents; I can’t help thinking there must have been something more that I can’t recall. On May 3rd, there was a huge anti-war rally, and all three of us went to it.

Seattle Rally May 3 1981

At the rally, I talked with a member of the Revolutionary Communist Party, the same group that had been at the center of a melee I was in the day before at First and Pike.The RCP’s stated goal: the violent overthrow of the US government by the end of the 80s. I wasn’t a communist, but I was certainly leaning toward socialism and was adopting an anti-capitalist attitude that made me at least somewhat sympathetic to ‘mainstream’ communists.  But the RCP’s  program of violence, even civil war, elicited no such sympathy. As my thinking became more radical with regard to change, I also was beginning to see the further one moved from the center, the less freedom was valued. The radical, the ideologue, far enough to the left or to the right, is no friend of the Bill of Rights. Those rights stand in the way of burning down the City and remaking it according to the Perfect Plan. My opposition to violence and basic belief in the Bill of Rights wasn’t going to make me a very good radical.

“Let me ask you something,” I said to him. “You want to take over the government. Make a new constitution.”

“Yes.”

“What’s your position on freedom of religion?”

He hemmed and hawed. “Well,” he said cautiously, “religion is one of the major problems in the current power structure.”

“People in this country wouldn’t  have religious freedom under your regime, would they?”

“No.”

That means forced renunciations or – for those won’t – prison, re-education, death.

“That’s what I thought.”

Turning away, I said to Troy, “At least he’s honest.”

I was thinking, Crap, I’m marching in the same rally with this goon. Someone who’d put a bullet through the head of everyone in my family, if he had the power.

It’s funny. That was a conversation that could just as likely have taken place in 1969. As in Missoula, there was this subculture frozen in time, as if Nixon were still president and bombing Cambodia, and J.Edgar Hoover was spying on them. The world was changing around them and the agents of change had parked themselves in a timeless echo chamber, with street theatre puppets, Grateful Dead concerts and Marxist dogma.

Around that time, I went to the office of the historic underground newspaper, Northwest Passage. I told a guy there my newspaper background and said I’d like to help out. Without showing the least interest, he said maybe I could help with production. I could check back later and he offered a time I could do so.

“Actually, I’m interested in writing, too.”

“Yeah, well, we’ve got plenty of writers.”

I went back and worked an evening on production, although I don’t remember it; I just havenorthwest_blog_pic2 crop letter that says so. In it I also say that all three of us wanted to work there in the fall. We never did, though. I suspect I didn’t really believe that I would get the opportunity to write. Even though the paper was known for accepting articles from readers, and getting a lot of submissions, now I got the impression they had more than they needed.

By themselves, I don’t think either of these events dissuaded me from activism. Perhaps they damped my enthusiasm, though. At 16 I had been welcomed warmly by the small cadre of peace activists at the University of Montana, even though all I had to contribute was my enthusiasm and commitment. But Seattle had thousands of activists, splintered into their little constituencies, none of whom, I thought, would care that I wanted to write for their cause. That’s what most of them were already doing themselves.

That's right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

That’s right: Katherine Hepburn. Letter to Dad & Jane.

Another factor was the anger and pessimism I sensed. Perhaps I was projecting, but for a town that was firmly of the left, where they held political power and cultural dominance, Ronald Reagan really had a lot of folks in a lather. Things seemed pretty rotten, I suppose, if your goal in life was turning America into one big petroleum-free food co-op with no national defense.

But not so bad if you concentrated on the positive, like getting high and doing The Pogo.

Prior Engagement
My interest in writing wasn’t in any way diminished, and I have a note recording my first serious thought about filmmaking. On April 22, Mark and I had a conversation about writing and making a film. I got very excited about the idea, but I had no idea what it would involve.

April 1981

April 1981

That conversation never developed into a script or anything beyond. But it was the impetus for me to start some screenwriting, which I believe I first put my hand to in the fall. What’s most interesting about my note is that I immediately worried that if we went forward with such an idea (making a film), it could scuttle or delay our Europe plan, and interfere with my seeing Anna. I was trying to stay focused, but having such a hard time!

Mark and Troy both knew that regardless of what I was doing in Seattle, come summer I was going back to Missoula. Classes let out at Cornell, and Anna would be returning on Memorial Day weekend. At some point though, Mark decided he was coming back for the summer as well. Troy and I didn’t care for the idea. We thought it might be hard to make ends meet, especially if we didn’t land summer jobs as we hoped. But he wanted to go, and felt sure he could at least get some work from his mom.

We returned to Missoula on May 28th. Our manager at the King Cinema said we could have our jobs when we came back. She probably couldn’t have promised it, but we did go back to work there when we returned to Seattle.

We had been in Seattle for only little over three months. Already it looked as if our plans had little hope of success. Our earnings did not exceeded our expenses, and our whole plan depended on saving money. Beside that, without any of us knowing it, our resolve was so precarious that only one change of circumstance would be enough to chuck the whole idea aside: something like a falling out, or a girlfriend or another idea.

A better idea.

Laugh Your Life | Part One

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine's Day! I couldn't resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you're taking the steps too soon. And - there is a safety net, don't forget. Much love from all of us - Mom

Dear Steve, Happy Valentine’s Day! I couldn’t resist this card! Just want you to know that I love you even though I think you’re taking the steps too soon. And – there is a safety net, don’t forget. Much love from all of us – Mom

Living in Seattle is like being in love with a beautiful woman who’s sick all the time.
-Anonymous

But oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Oh, that magic feeling, nowhere to go
Nowhere to go
-Lennon & McCartney

In mid-February, 1981, I dropped out of high school. The plan my friends and I had hatched was this: move from Missoula to a big city, make a lot of money, then travel around  Europe until it ran out. Pure genius, right? A high school dropout like me would find it a cinch to make and save loads of money in a short time. The only puzzle is why others don’t follow this simple sure-fire plan.
Cosmo Motel SeattleAt first we thought we would move to Boston – I don’t remember why. But we settled on Seattle, in part because Troy’s mom lived there. None of us knew much about Seattle, but that only added to the sense of adventure we had about the move. It was anticipation that distracted me from the consideration that at only 17, I was leaving a place I loved more than I realized, for a place I didn’t know, away from parents and friends.

Cosmo - 1976 map

Before shouting, “Hi, Seattle,” make sure you’re in Seattle. -Mick Jagger

We drove the 480 miles to Seattle on February 19. None of us had a car, so a fourth friend drove us. Between us we had $400. We stayed 3 nights at the Cosmopolitan, at that time a cheap downtown motel situated along the Monorail line on 5th Avenue. (It’s a King’s Inn now, and not to be confused with the condo tower on Virginia Street.) We took acid and walked around downtown, then back to the Cosmo where we passed several hours that swirled with hallucinations, buffoonery and maniacal laughter. My only previous visit of note to the city was in 1978 for the King Tut exhibit that was confined to the Seattle Center. Thus my first look at my new home was through a kaleidoscopic window of imaginary color and light, melting, erupting and shimmering in the cold winter night.

* * *
After the Cosmo, we stayed in the apartment of Troy’s mom, Sharon,  and his younger sister. We were there about five weeks. It was crowded. Sharon was gracious, but it must have grown annoying having us at such close quarters for so long.Troy was first to land a job, and I was second. The difference between the job he was able to land and mine ought to have glared at me as the obvious first clue to the consequences of quitting school. Troy began work proofreading multimillion-dollar contracts for a re-insurance company. It paid an excellent hourly wage for an 18-year-old just out of high school. I went to work at the Ballard McDonald’s. A couple of weeks before that I had been hired to call people while they were eating dinner, try to sell them frozen meat and fish, get yelled at and hung up on. I was humiliated and relieved when I was fired after my first shift.

Mark got a job at a downtown movie theatre. Once one of us had a job and a paycheck, we got our own place. We rented a 3-bedroom walk-up in a four-plex in Ballard, on 20th Ave NW near 58th Street. At $345, the rent was on the steep side, but it was spacious and we each had our own room. Our landlord, whose name was Wen Lee, spoke little English and would come to regret renting to us, we dubbed Obi-Wen, the Jedi Landlord.

Thurs. Feb. 19 – Missoula-Seattle/Cosmo Motel
Fri.              20 – Cosmo Motel
Sat.             21 – Cosmo Motel
Sun             22 – Sharon’s – Dave (our driver) left
Mon            23 – Job hunting begins – slowly.
Fri               27 – Hired – Pacific Meat Co.
Mon  March 2 – First nite – fired
Mon             9 – Troy started work/ my interviews
Thurs         12 – McDonald’s – orientation meeting
Fri              13 – First day. Grueling and grubby.
Sat             21 – Mark starts work at theatre selling concessions.
- my notebook, 1981
* * *
I found Seattle in 1981 glittering and gritty, grass-green and pavement-gray. I saw similarities to my hometown of Portland, but it was bigger and in some ways better: It rained less, at least in that year. It was circled by water and mountains, and I was intoxicated when I caught the salt-sea air. Downtown clubs like Wrex and the Gorilla Room shook with local bands like Student Nurse, the Refuzors and the Fartz. There was so much more than we were used to, especially for Mark and Troy, who hadn’t lived in towns bigger than Missoula, MT or Corvallis, OR. There were art-house movie theatres, restaurants of every kind, music stores that blew our minds with thousands of records. There were Broadway shows, big rock concerts, under-21 clubs and bookstores I could lose a day in.
Seattle Ent 75
But we were broke. So, living in Seattle, for me at least, was like being invited to a banquet but not permitted to eat. I remember standing around outside the clubs, but I don’t recall ever going in. There was a cover charge, and I wasn’t about to pay money to get slam-danced.  I probably missed some good music; mostly I missed the early 80′s Seattle pre-grunge punk scene. Almost any of the interesting things we would’ve wanted to do cost money and we didn’t have much of that.

Theatres & the Absurd
I hated working at McDonald’s. Mark told me I could get on at the theatre, so in May, I applied there and quit McDonald’s after five weeks, when I was hired by the King Cinema. It was a single, 900-seat movie house, supposedly the biggest in Seattle, at 6th & Blanchard (currently the King Cat Theater). I worked concessions mostly, sometimes tearing tickets and cleaning the lobby. We were open all day, opening around noon, and usually not busy until Friday and Saturday nights. The rest of the week, it was very slow.
The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974.

The Way We Were: the King when it opened in 1974. It’s the laughter we will remember.

When I started, we were showing Roman Polanski’s Tess, certainly one of the most visually beautiful movies I have ever seen. Two, three, maybe half a dozen patrons would come in, and once the concession counter and lobby were clean, we kicked back until they emerged 3 hours later. It’s good thing we liked movies, because it was the one form of entertainment that was wide open to us, any time we weren’t working. It was at least one table at the banquet we could eat from. All we had to do was have Gigi, our manager, call the manager of most any theater in town, and ask them if we could have a pass into their show. We could see about anything we wanted. Good and bad, we saw dozens of movies. I saw more new movies that year than any other in  my life: Reds, Gallipoli, Prince of the City, Body Heat, Blow Out, An American Werewolf in London, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, Time Bandits, True Confessions, Pennies from Heaven, American Pop, Excalibur, Whose Life is it Anyway?, Ragtime, The Hand, Wolfen, Eyewitness, Fort Apache the Bronx, Taps, They All Laughed, Arthur, The Border, Cannery Row and more. If we really liked a movie, we went back and watched it again. We must have seen Breaker Morant five times. (I saw the big summer movies when I was back in Missoula.) And the ones that showed at the King Cinema Mark and I saw over and over, until we could recite large sections of dialog: Tess, Absence of Malice, On Golden Pond, Bustin’ Loose.

We also made it to art houses like the Harvard Exit where we were dazzled by stunning and strange foreign films, including some foreign and Hollywood classics. The two that stand out in my memory: Lawrence of Arabia, and a truly bizarre, wonderful and labyrinthine 1965 movie from Poland, The Saragossa Manuscript. (For a great slide show of Seattle cinemas, go here.) We saw some lesser known films, like Breaking Glass and McVicar. I saw a great documentary on James Agee.Nineteen Eighty-One, in my mind, was and remains the year of the movie. In the year and a half after I left the King, I saw only two movies.

* * *
I’m a little lost lamb
in the heart of the city

-Nick Lowe

At the outset we had no friends in Seattle. The only people we met were those Mark I worked with at the theatre, and they became our new friends. It was a diverse group of people who ranged from about age 17 to their mid-twenties. We had the good fortune of meeting some excellent people who made our lives richer than they would have otherwise have been. Some of them we only saw at work, but at least half-dozen we saw after hours all the time. We went out to shows, and sometimes partied together. Interestingly, of our dozen or so co-workers, three or four identified as Christians,  a young married couple were LDS, and another contingent hailed from the Church of Scientology, including a guy who taught Scientology classes. There was no shortage of lively and stimulating discussions about religion and the meaning of human existence.

In fact, I was thinking about these things all the time. For that, I needed some mental space – a lot of space – and time alone with the these thoughts I was wrestling with. I would not happen upon that kind of space until a year later, but as long as I kept these thoughts to myself, I could manage some reflection.

But Mark, well, he crowded me. He didn’t mean to. He would draw me into long debates that lasted into early morning hours in which I would put up lame defenses of things I may have wanted to believe, but which crumbled under his persistent and unrelenting arguments. When we first arrived in Seattle, Mark had given me Albert Camus’ The Myth of Sisyphus, which I read the first week at Sharon’s. This essay was nothing less than a blitzkrieg against my liberal idealism and fuzzy agnosticism. I came face to face with the flat-out assertion that our existence is absurd, a result of the collision of our desire for reason with an unquestionably unreasonable world. In a godless and absurd universe, the only real question is suicide. Life, death and everything in between leave us without any claim on hope. But suicide is not an option: paradoxically, the absurd man must reject the “invitation to death” in favor of a life lived on his own terms.The only thing to do is rebel against the absurdity of the world, and live life to the fullest, in “my revolt, my freedom, and my passion.”

Of course I could not begin to accept the premise, even if his solution sounded fine. The world is insane and nonsensical on its face, but that does not force upon me a surrender to this fact as the ultimate and defining truth of my existence. Not everything is absurd. Some things do make sense. Many things are beautiful and good, and if nothing else, as rational beings we have survived by constructing a reasonable reality – if even in our minds – that we can cope with.

If I were certain there was no God, then this premise of the absurd might make sense. But if I am not certain, I cannot choose to live as if this absurdity were inescapable: it might be have an escape. I just don’t know what it is. Knowing about God, if that were possible, would sure help.

Despite my rejection of Camus’ statement of the human problem; despite the apparent seriousness of my thoughts; despite the high unlikelihood of success in Seattle; despite my occasional loneliness and fairly constant confusion, I was, in my day-to-day life, taking Camus’ advice: I was kicking at the wall, I wanted to kick it down, I was taking everything life had to offer, I was trying new things, I was looking for a girl to keep me company, I was feeling my passion and letting it rise, I was drinking whiskey and smoking the herb, I was laughing, laughing every day, laughing down the dead-end street, laughing my life.

We all were laughing, that’s just how we were, how we are, the three of us. We looked at the situation we had put ourselves in, saw the absurdity of our own mistakes and missteps, and we thought it was funny. We laughed our lives.

Down? No, not yet, anyway.

sisyphus-1549 titian

I leave Sisyphus at the foot of the mountain. One always finds one’s burden again. But Sisyphus teaches the higher fidelity that negates the gods and raises rocks. He too concludes that all is well. This universe henceforth without a master seems to him neither sterile nor futile. Each atom of that stone, each mineral flake of that night-filled mountain, in itself, forms a world. The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.
-Albert Camus

Crazy Little Thing | Part One

I’ll be your mirror
Reflect what you are, in case you don’t know

-Velvet Underground

Wayfarers

One of the sadder truths of this life is how little we know of love, real, selfless love, rooted in trust and resulting in intimacy. We know little of what it is, how to receive or how to give it. We yearn for it most powerfully, but are so often deceived by its counterfeits into mistaking for them the real thing. Our fears and selfishness are its constant enemies.

As I approach 50, I realize how little I yet understand of real love: the saving, healing, and life-giving love – the real thing. This piece is mostly a confession of my confusion as a boy who wanted it in his deepest heart’s core but had only a meager notion of what it actually was. Perhaps ‘meager’ is too generous.

The first time I fell in love happened the summer between my sophomore and junior years in high school. I had never had anything close to a girlfriend, and had only one or two dates. I was terrified of the opposite sex, mostly because I figured females were pretty much the opposite sex from me. If I ever liked a girl, I was always afraid to ask her out. The one time I did, it was extremely uncomfortable; I didn’t know how to talk to her and couldn’t bring myself to continue seeing her. I thought it must have been the worst couple of hours of her freshman year.

The previous summer had been whiled away on my odd personal pursuits, virtually friendless and alone. Dad insisted this year that I get a summer job, and told me about the Youth Conservation Corps. I applied early in the year and was accepted. Though it was not all work (we got paid for class time as well), it was my first real job. It turned out to be a fantastic experience. The YCC was a federal youth work-educational program modeled after the Civil Conservation Corps of the 1930s. We spent one half of the week in Missoula, where our time was spent in the classroom and on public improvement projects, such as building and repairing playground equipment, or grounds keeping. In the classroom we learned about various subjects like first-aid and forest ecology. We spent the other half of the week at ‘spike camp.’ There we worked our way through acres of recently logged forest, gathering and making enormous piles of slash. It was hard work on rugged terrain. When we broke for the day, we swam in a cool mountain lake, and spent the evening and night in a tent camp.

The job began on  June 16, 1980.  On the third day of work, I joined some other workers loading a pickup before heading to a work site. As I introduced myself to the others, a girl named Anna told me we had met before.  Earlier in the year I had helped start a left-wing student group, USA, at Hellgate (see Waiting for the End of the World). Audrey, a friend from Sentinel High, came to a few of our meetings, and once she brought her friend Anna. Audrey had talked me up to her, and she already held me in esteem on account of my civil-disobedience arrest on Easter Sunday.

I fumbled a little, trying to remember where we had met, and she told me. That was the beginning of our friendship. We began working together when we could, eating lunch together, and before long our feelings went beyond friendship.

Anna had just graduated from Sentinel High, Hellgate’s cross-town rival. A National Merit Scholar, she would be attending Cornell in the fall. She was bright, soft-spoken, friendly to everyone and cute as a button. To me, however, the most remarkable thing about Anna  was: she was interested in me. No person I had ever known was as interested in me – other than me – and it just astonished me. It seemed we could talk about anything, and that neither of us – me at 16, her at 18 – had known someone like that. The overwhelming thing about falling in love is not just the feelings you have for the other person, it’s that they return them. When another person reflects backs to you a better self than the one you know, a smarter, more interesting, more treasured person – well, they are a mirror, with an image you haven’t known. If your self-image is marred by a mix of vanity and self-loathing, as mine was, then you will become transfixed by this mirror. Someone outside my own self-obsessed mind wants to be with me. She must be awesome!

As it would turn out, Anna was, in practically every respect, a far better person than I was. But I couldn’t see that, and what it might mean for us, and – at first, anyway – neither could she.

I began having the typical first-love feelings. I thought of her all the time, and time away from work – and thus from Anna  - became far too long.  One day at spike camp, Anna suggested we go see a movie she had heard about.  Seeing John Sayles’ The Return of the Secaucus Seven at the Crystal Theater was our first date.

One memory from that night has stayed with me. We came before they had begun seating, the first to arrive, so we sat on a love seat in the small lobby. As we sat, a man and a woman walked in from the street, both clothed in long white robes. He had hair down to his elbows and a long beard. Right away I knew they were Children of God. They greeted us warmly and then the man proceeded to the box office. From inside, the owner asked what he could do for them.

“We are traveling Christians and we carry no coin.”

“Uh-huh.”

“I wonder if you might have two seats in your house for two weary wayfarers.”

All our eyes were on the owner.

“Well, this is a movie theater, a business, and I do carry coin.”

“I understand.”

“Mm. Wait until the film is started and everyone is seated inside, and the lobby is clear. You can sit in the back.”

“God bless you, brother!”

After this we began to see each other on the weekends and evenings. We saw some more movies, “Annie Hall,” “The Elephant Man.” We rode our bikes up Pattee Canyon,  stopping along the way to pick huckleberries and eat lunch. Anna met Dad & Jane when we rode with them to Stevensville for the July 4th parade. I knew they would love her and they did.

I wanted her to meet my friends…sort of. The problem was, Anna and I ran in different circles – rather, different kinds of circles – and the differences between my world and hers, between the darkest pathways my mind had begun to take, the whole drift of my life in the last year – it was all highlighted by my relationship with someone whose path was in stark contrast. It was uncomfortable. I should have been traveling her way, but I wasn’t. Anna had a goodness and wholesomeness to her that did not characterize my life, to say nothing of my heart. In spite of beginning to awaken, I was basically self-seeking, and she, to a much greater extent, looked out for others. In many ways I was closed and narrow in my thinking, but her world had a lot more room. She had worked hard in school. I would soon be slacking off. She had steered clear of trouble. But the masthead over me and my friends was Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll.  In fact, it was my interests and aims around these three things (which were not shared by Anna, it should go without saying), that most obviously marked the real content of my character compared to Anna’s. I was torn, because it felt a little like it wasn’t  the real me, but I was going that way nonetheless. Anna as a mirror showed me what she saw, but not the hidden me that only I could see, wounded and a little desperate.

Sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. She wasn’t going for it, at least not the first two. I was crazy enough about her to settle for one out of three. And she liked me well enough to listen to my rock ‘n’ roll. But did we hear the same songs?

Save the Date: “Ambrosia” Premieres May 31st

This Thursday marks the premiere of my friend Eric Waetjen’s debut, Ambrosia. Eric’s previous work includes a sharp, polished music video for his band Noir City of their song Cold Eyes, which he directed with (Ambrosia DP) Paul Peterson. (If you look carefully you can spot yours truly at 1:06 and in shots following 1:30)

Cold Eyes displays a clear vision and a developed style that most directors lack starting out. This is due to his talent, high standards and assemblage of talented collaborators. Eric is also a close student of film, staking out personal favorites such Sergio Leone and Michael Mann as sources of inspiration and influence.

I am excited about seeing Ambrosia, which Eric has written produced and directed. With it, Eric presents the kind of narrative he has envisioned almost since we met in 1997: a sci-fi crime thriller with a clean, urban, neo-noir vibe, taut action and lots of energy. Check out the trailers. I think you’ll agree that it looks to be an impressive debut short, with only better things to come.

And if you live in the Portland area, come see Ambrosia. It starts every 20 minutes from 7:30 to10:40 at the Living Room Theater, 341 SW 10th Ave. Here are the details from the Ambrosia Facebook page:

Ambrosia showing on 3 screens, 39 mins, 8 showings
Theater 1: 7:30, 8:50, 10:10
Theater 2: 7:50, 9:10, 10:40
Theater 3: 8:10, 9:30

Come see one of the most intense action packed films produced in Portland (all local actors and crew). All of your friends are invited (free). Please share this event on FB and Twitter with all your friends.
(no minors). Enjoy the bar and café.

THE OFFICIAL AFTER PARTY AT AURA
After you see Ambrosia at the Living Room Theater on May 31st feel free to head just around the corner to Aura(1022 West Burnside Street) for The Ambrosia After Screening Party! Enjoy drinks and DJ music. The door is free!

Questions contact us at intrinsicpdx@gmail.com
Don’t forget to like our page: www.facebook.com/AmbrosiaFilm/

We found the stone rolled away and the final reel missing

From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

Despite being made ten years later, it seems fitting to compare this movie with The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ (1902-05). Both early silent Jesus movies, they are also both offered to current viewers on the same DVD and likely to be seen by the same audience.

From the Manger to the Cross is an important movie, apart from its subject matter. It was was made on a large budget, was a huge commercial success and was selected in 1998 by the Library of Congress for preservation in its National Film Registry. Director Sidney Olcott was praised as the greatest film director working.

Sidney Olcott 1873-1946

Watching Manger shows how fast the art and craft of cinema was developing in its early days. In most respects this careful American production, shot on location in Palestine, is superior to its French predecessor. The acting is much improved, and in place of theatrical sets and costumes,  locations, costumes and extras lend more authenticity to the experience. It has more of a narrative flow to it, using intertitles that include dialogue and quotes form the King James Version setting up each scene.

It is a more sober telling of the story. The pace is relaxed. The special effects take a back seat to the realism of the setting and performances. Though the camera does not move, the actors freely within the space, and different angles are sometimes used. The composition and blocking are much more sophisticated.

Gene Gauntier 1885-1966

Two of the performances should be noted. Mary the mother of Jesus is an older, down to earth woman, far from overwhelmed by the burden she has received. There is a fascinating scene that I think I have figured out.  In Nazareth, Mary and Jesus, age 12, are sitting together just outside Joseph’s shop. While Joseph seems to be fumbling with his work, Mary is holding up a scroll, presumably of the Scriptures, and they are reading and discussing it together. It is not clear who is learning from whom; perhaps they are learning together. Is this a suffragette Mary? Given the era, this seems a remarkable insertion into a fairly spare retelling.

I wondered about this until I recalled that Mary is played by the remarkable film pioneer Gene Gauntier – actress, director and screenwriter – who also wrote the script for this film. I believe that, like the renaissance masters, she has painted herself into the picture: a student of Scripture, sitting with Jesus.

Then there is Jesus. Robert Henderson-Bland has given us a better performance , with greater emotional range, including smiling here and grieving there. But  other choices make Jesus out to be a pretty cool customer at times. He puts on a nonchalance, turning away from amazed onlookers after a miracle as if t’were no big deal. After turning the water into wine, he saunters back to his seat. “Yeah, that’s how I party, folks.”

There are little flourishes and details that are interesting and unexpected. The last supper shows everyone actually reclining rather than sitting, and Jesus is shown carrying a tau cross – both indications Gauntier did her research. Mary of Bethany has the most delightful look of pleasure when Jesus admonishes her sister. The priests are particularly wicked, laughing out loud at Judas when he throws the money down and runs away in remorse. The passion is very violent, bloody even. It must have been genuinely intense viewing for a 1912 audience. The mockery and other abuse is ugly, as it should be. The crucifixion is realistic and beautifully shot.

The most stunning surprise of this movie shouldn’t have surprised me at all, because it’s in the title. When Jesus dies on the cross, the story ends. Intertitle with John 3:16. Roll credits. Movie over.

Wow. When they said from the manger to the cross, that’s just what they meant. No burial, no garden tomb, no resurrection. Yes, I was – and am – very surprised that a movie made for American audiences in 1912 ends with a dead Jesus.

If you were planning your Easter to include a Jesus movie, you should skip this one.

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The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ
(La Vie et la Passion de Jésus Christ) (1902-5)

I have intended for some time to post short reviews of the major Jesus biopics, so here goes. There are many more films in this class than you or I would have access to, so I am limiting myself to those that are available on Netflix. You may be able to find more if you seek out DVDs for sale. Many more are discussed at Matt Page’s Bible Films Blog.

It seems superfluous to comment on a movie for you, when you can sample it or view it in its entirety for yourself by clicking your mouse. Nevertheless, I have a few thoughts.

The Life and Passion
is an early and primitive movie, but one made by the best producers in the world at that time, Pathé Frères of Paris. It was originally made in 1902, then scenes were added until it took its final form in 1905. You can now find an amazingly well preserved print of this 44-minute feature superbly transferred to DVD. On the same disc they’ve included 1912′s From the Manger to the Cross, which I will review shortly.

This was a popular film, lively, colorful and Catholic in its point of view. It used elaborate if not convincing sets and costumes, and employed the best of special effects at the time, including the pain-staking process of hand-tinting: adding colors to the picture by painting them directly onto the black and white print, frame by frame. The film deserves some respect for the care, creativity and energy the cast and crew put into it.

Hardly anyone watches silent films anymore. As it would be hard to find anyone younger than myself (born 1963) who grew up with easy access to them (even though they are even easier to find now, on DVD), mine may be the last generation that watched and enjoyed them. I started with Chaplin around age nine, then Lon Chaney and Buster Keaton, and as I got older, added Griffith, Murnau and Lang. To appreciate them calls for a suspension of current standards in acting and film-making technique. You need to see them for what they were at the time, given the limitations they worked under. Do that, and you will marvel at the genius, artistry, innovation, unbridled creativity and sheer insanity some of these brilliant pioneers gave to the world. To this day, people are still watching and enjoying Murnau’s Sunrise and Nosferatu, Lang’s Metropolis and Chaplin’s City Lights.

At the same time, I don’t expect the average viewer today is going to enjoy most of early cinema’s lesser achievements. The Life and the Passion would probably fall into this category: it is technically marvelous for its time, but undeveloped in its story-telling and old-fashioned in its performances. When you see what was being produced in the mid-to-late 1920s, the turn of the century films are rightly deemed primitive. The camera might pan, but it doesn’t move (see the Nazareth scene). There are no close-ups. There is no montage, not even simple cross-cutting. In fact, there are no separate shots, only one master shot. (The year 1903 saw most of those innovations for the first time in Edwin Porter’s Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery.)

With that in mind, I offer some comments for the modern viewer.

The Baptism of Jesus

Even with the kinetic energy and technical flourishes, it’s a little hard to look past the essential goofiness of this film. Through 21st century eyes it most resembles a Nativity pageant at the corner church, albeit with spectacular stagecraft. Shot in a series of tableaux scenes, there is no real narrative thread to connect them, so it it doesn’t flow or connect. “Scenes from the Life of Christ” might have been a better title. The intertitles identify each scene, but there are none that explain the action or provide dialogue. If you are not familiar with any of the stories portrayed, you are unlikely to have any idea what is happening in them. Possibly for the original, more biblically-literate audience, this was not much of a problem, since at that time the entertainment value was inherent any moving image. Add the spectacle, the miracles, real babies for the Slaughter of the Innocents, the appearance of Jesus, and well, you’ve got a happy audience.

In this early effort some of the challenges, solutions and failings of later Jesus movies are already presenting themselves. Here the legend of Veronica is used, found in Catholic tradition but not in the gospel narratives. Also, we find the conflation of stories, presumably for economy’s sake – an acceptable but potentially confusing adaptation (see this at 21:23 in the video below). Good Friday is bloodless, until  Jesus is “pierced” (actually tapped with a stick dipped in fake blood) by the centurion: the scourging (at 32:05) consists of Jesus being lashed with silk scarves for 11 seconds.

"That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown."

Let’s talk about Jesus. One of my keenest interests in Jesus movies is the portrayal each offers of Jesus himself, a role that poses serious challenges for the best of actors. I will have more to say about this in later reviews. For now, let me speculate that this actor (I haven’t been able to discover his name) was given a free hand in developing a physical presence in this film. In fact, the performances of both the 12 year old  Jesus and the adult Jesus  suggest the actors were having a lot of fun playing him. A little too much fun, perhaps. Not that he is merry. No, he is grand. Instead of being humble and unassuming, he sweeps through the scenes, with big, “Hey, look at me” gestures, waving his arms, lecturing everyone with his index finger, and making a big deal whenever his attention is turned heavenward. At least once it appears that he points at the ground as if he were telling the Samaritan woman to kneel before him (at 18:42; Jesus allowed people to worship him, but he never told them to.). This Jesus looks like the aging proprietor of a head shop or a roadie for the Grateful Dead, but he acts like a low-level bureaucrat that just got made king of the world.

So even with the stagey acting and frenetic pace that quickens to almost farcical speed as it winds up to its climax (The Ascension: It’s spectacular, but it ill-advisedly shows God the Father as a grey-haired old man, ala Gary Larson’s The Far Side);  its flat, fake scenery; its lack of continuity; even with all that, I must choose the portrayal of a show-boating Jesus (“Everybody watch me turn this water into wine!”) as the most serious flaw in this movie. Their first task was to tell a good story, but 110 years ago the conventions of doing that on film were not yet established, so I won’t hold them to that standard. But I will fault them for a hammy, grandiose Jesus who gesticulates but never connects with another person. How could you read any of the gospels and not at least observe the deeply personal connection he makes with everyone who approaches him? There’s nothing even remotely like that here. He is an eccentrically animated icon, nothing more.

This points to one of the supreme challenges for the makers of a Jesus movie: how to bring him to life. Knowing him would seem to be absolutely necessary for the attempt, or at least a genuine sense that one knows him – as a writer, as a director, and as an actor must know their subject. Some actors have been honest enough to say that they struggled with how to play him. Other filmmakers have brought something running the spectrum from admiration to love for him. But it is almost a sure bet that the cultural perspectives of the time will have a lot to do with the image of Jesus. In this case a traditional, French Catholic image, as presented by a studio rather fixed on the business of entertainment and on technological innovation, peopled by creative entrepreneurs and artists. “Let’s make a Jesus movie! Oui! Angels! Stars! Miracles!”

But enough of my opinion (or had that already crossed your mind?) – Watch it for yourself. And just for fun, see if you can find the completely weird placement of the Pathé rooster in almost every scene.

Passing on The Passion

It’s been more than six and a half years since The Passion of the Christ was released. I still have not seen it. This is by choice, not by chance. Since I am writing a series of reviews of all the major films that portray the story of Jesus, I thought I should explain why this one – by far the most popular and highest-grossing Jesus movie ever – is being omitted, at least for the time being.

My reasons are both personal and theological. Let me say at the outset that my reasons have nothing to do with the man who made the film, Mel Gibson. Even though I think his personal life indicates that he is a deeply troubled man with some serious failings, that alone would not keep me from seeing it. After all, Richard Wagner was at least as flawed, and I listen to his music. Also, the fact that the film was controversial would not have kept me away. The Last Temptation of Christ was also controversial, and I saw it. More on this point later.

The film was released three months, almost to the day, after the death of our 13-year-old son in an automobile accident. At the time our 11-year-old daughter had just awoken from two and a half months in a coma, and my wife was living at the hospital with her. At this point any sensible person would say that alone was reason enough why I wouldn’t go running off to the movies. But actually, just once I had gone to the movies (The Return of the King). And I wish I hadn’t, at least when I did. But one typically considers seeing a movie when everyone else is seeing it, when it is being widely discussed and, in this case, debated.

I went though a lot of anguish and inner struggle over having lost my son. As a Christian, it was not a crisis of faith so much as a trial of faith. I felt like the soldier on the battlefield who is having his leg amputated after the anesthetic has run out. I know I can live through it, and know I must endure it, but that does not take the pain away. Will the fire refine me or burn me up?

One thought that kept recurring was that God the Father had also lost His Son to the grave. I would always think, “Yes, but that was only for three days; this is for the rest of our lives.” I eventually came to believe that the difference I perceive between three days and the rest of my life will someday evaporate in light of eternity. If you were to say, “But God knew that His Son’s death was only temporary,” I would say, “So do I.”

All of this to say, I couldn’t contemplate watching a whole movie that focused on Jesus’ death. Death had gutted me: I’d had enough of it. “Well, it wasn’t just any death. Maybe it would have helped.” I doubt it.

Another reason: I was horrified at reports of people walking into the theater with their little kids, buckets of popcorn and half-liters of pop as if they settling in for Toy Story. This is not just a movie, and it is certainly not for the little ones. This is like Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan. It calls you to witness a harrowing portrayal of suffering that will not amuse you. It is not entertainment. Perhaps in a few months I could sit through such an experience, but I could not sit with such an audience. I certainly could not abide people subjecting their children to such an ordeal. I would have to watch it alone.

I know that the movie was charged with portrayals that some took as anti-Jewish (The movie had Jewish defenders as well as detractors). Without having seen the movie, let me assume that it reflects the gospel narratives. The gospels have a polemic nature, so there are antagonists and protagonists. It should be pointed out that while some of the antagonists are Jews, practically all of the protagonists are. But more significant is that, while in Jesus’ arrest and trials the key actors are the Jewish leaders, in his execution there is a clear and necessary joining of Jewish power and Gentile (Roman) power. Any fair reading of the texts would bear this out. This fact also has a theological significance for the early church:

So when they (the Christians) heard that, they raised their voice to God with one accord and said: “Lord, You are God, who made heaven and earth and the sea, and all that is in them, who by the mouth of Your servant David have said:
‘Why did the nations (Gentiles) rage,
And the people plot vain things?
The kings of the earth took their stand,
And the rulers were gathered together
Against the LORD and against His Christ.’
For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:24-28 NKJV)(Parentheticals mine.)

Jew and Gentile, who were separate and opposed, came together in agreement that Jesus should die. In this collaboration they represent all of humanity. Luke, the only Gentile NT writer, makes a point of telling us,

That very day Pilate and Herod became friends with each other, for previously they had been at enmity with each other. Lk. 23:12

Of course, I would have to see the movie to know for sure, but if the charge is that the movie is anti-Jewish because the New Testament is, I don’t accept the premise. Just because the Jewish leaders are villains does not make the narrative anti-Jewish. All the the heroes are Jewish as well – not the least the rabbi Yeshua himself.

Finally, my interest in the film is dampened by by the apparent emphasis it has on the gruesome nature of Christ’s sufferings. I have no doubt that the torture and mutilation it shows is without exaggeration. I have seen plenty of stills, and a few clips from the movie. I have also seen most of the major Jesus movies, with their typically mild depiction of the passion. Tiny stripes with little streaks of blood. This is for two obvious reasons that I can think of and one less obvious. The audiences and the level of violence that both they and the censors (when they reigned) would have tolerated would not permit of a graphic rendering of Jesus’ torture. Second, most people would like to consider the story of Jesus a family movie, and not want the little children of the world to be exposed to such horrors. The less obvious reason is that most Jesus movies, from the silent era on, drew their imagery and staging from Christian iconography – most commendably from great renaissance painting and sculpture…

…and more regrettably from lesser forms of popular art, like those found in old family bibles or on prayer cards.

The Passion is to those sanitized portraits, I imagine, what P.O.D. is to Evie.

But I think there is an even more important consideration. I have sat through at least a half dozen sermons in my life that did in words what The Passion has done on film: draw attention to the gore and mutilation of the passion. The speaker usually goes for the effect of horror or revulsion and then says something to the effect of, “He suffered all of this for you.”

And it’s true. He did suffer these things on behalf of everyone of us. The New Testament says this very clearly, and I do not disagree. But what it does not include is any of the vivid details. That’s because it was neither necessary – most readers and hearers were all too familiar with the cruel practices of the day – nor was it central to the point of His sufferings.

The meaning of His suffering is profound, and it is considered from more than one perspective in the NT. We are to understand it as the ultimate form of humilty and obedience.

And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. Php. 2:8

It is a model of suffering for us, that is, it makes our character and conforms it more to Christ’s.

For consider Him who endured such hostility from sinners against Himself, lest you become weary and discouraged in your souls. Heb. 12:3

It paid the penalty in full for all the sins of the world.

For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit…1Pe. 3:18

And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world. 1Jn. 2:2

It reveals the full extent of God’s love for humanity.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. 1Jn. 4:10

To understand this should not require – and apparently the writers of the NT agreed – a detailed mental image of butchery and mutilation. The point of His torture and death is spiritual and theological not physiological. To have witnessed the events would have elicited an R-rating, but to understand what they meant in the fullest sense certainly does not.

Perhaps someday I may feel differently about the prospect of watching The Passion of the Christ. From what I have read, it is an extraordinary film. But it is hard for me to foresee gaining so much from it that it would outweigh the ordeal of watching it.