Saturday, August 30, 2014

Ten Films That UU Should Watch: Amélie

I’ve always considered the French approach to filmmaking to be radically different from what typically comes out of Hollywood – and, perhaps, more suited to the mindset of Unitarian Universalists. Images predominates in American films, so much so that the most common critique tends to be: “Looks great, but not much substance.” French films, on the other hand, are incredibly dense with dialogue and narrative and character; the image merely accentuates the story, and the best French movies seem to me an elegantly crafted sequence of tableaux vivants composed and arranged to highlight the story one is hearing.

That’s definitely true with Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain, created by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and known more commonly by just the first name of its titular main character. Originally, Jeunet had intended for Emily Watson (of Harry Potter fame) to play Amélie, but circumstances led him to cast Audrey Tatou – and a good thing, too. Tatou is totally believable as the quirky, introverted waitress who embraces a mission of making others happy in imaginative ways.

In a sense, this is a “manic pixie dream girl” movie with greater substance. For one thing, we get to see what motivates Amélie Poulin to go out and make the world better, one stranger or couple at a time. She is thus no longer a zany plot device, but an actual person with background and depth. Nor do we see her focusing on just one stiff sap – she returns some treasured toys to their original owner, reunites an estranged couple, comforts an abandoned widow, gives a blind man a magical tour of Paris, et cetera. And we delight in every episode, as though we are accessories in her happy conspiracy.

But there’s another reason why Amélie goes beyond the standard manic-pixie-dream-girl trope, and it is the reason why I especially recommend it to UUs. As Amélie goes about making people happy, it is her neighbor Raymond Dufayel who reminds her of the need to cultivate her own bliss, which she does (and no, I’m not going to spoil it by telling you how). Often I’ve seen UUs and other progressives striving so very hard to make the world better somehow, while neglecting their own souls. If this film tells us anything, it is the importance of self-care and self-affirmation, and from that the reminder that our efforts are not merely for one cause or another, but for people like ourselves, and ultimately ourselves as well.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Harold and Maude

An experiment was once done in which a screenwriter submitted a script titled “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” to over two hundred agencies, of which only three considered it “commercially viable”. In fact, the script was a slightly altered version of Casablanca - and not one agent who bothered to read it recognized it as such.

So imagine the response of agents and film producers now if they had read the screenplay for the cult classic Harold and Maude.

Harold Chasen is seventeen years old, living with his wealthy mother in luxurious yet suffocating conformity. Two of his favorite pastimes are staging fake suicides and attending the funerals of total strangers. At one of these funerals, he meets a free-spirited elderly woman named Maude, and they become friends. Maude’s cheerful yet eccentric behavior not only appeals to Harold, but teaches him to embrace life more fully, and in time their friendship becomes a love affair – much to the shock of the more conventional folks around him.

Harold and Maude seems to defy convention by being both dark and light in its comedy, while also mixing in poignant moments in its dialogue and visual symbolism to provide some serious commentary on how our society appears to repress individuality. The character of Maude has been compared to the trope of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, yet I would refute this – Maude may bubble over with youthful exuberance, but she also possesses genuine wisdom and insight, such as in this excerpt:

Not to mention the fact that Harold actually grows as a result of Maude’s encouragement, finally moving beyond his morbid antics into a full embrace of life, still quirky yet very much in tune with his true self, and indeed healing. The ending leaves it open where he’s going, but we feel assured that he’s finally on a path that will lead him forward.

Many have commented that Harold and Maude is deeply existential, with Harold representing alienated nihilism, and Maude the response of living with purpose and free choice. Yet I would contend that it is about how our society ignores, marginalizes and attempts to control those who don’t “fit in” – including and especially youth (Harold) and elders (Maude) – and attempts to address how we might respond. I believe this motif is best expressed in this pivotal scene:

As the above scene shows, there are spiritual consequences to how we deal with difference in our society – and in our UU congregations. How best do we respond to that? This film, I believe, gives us insights into doing so. We need not march in picket lines or steal cars, nor retreat into obsession over the dark side of human nature, but instead embrace with joy our capacity to change and grow each day, and encourage those around us to do the same.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Ten Films That UUs Should Watch: Pleasantville

The best films not only give us great stories conveyed through imagery and dialogue, but they evoke thought and feeling, even making us question ourselves and our surroundings. That is why I love Pleasantville – a delightfully subversive comedy-drama with Tobey Maguire, Reese Witherspoon, William H. Macey and Joan Allen.

The film begins in the present day, where twins David and Jennifer (he withdrawn into television, she a shallow social butterfly) are fighting over control of the TV remote, which they break as a result. Enter an elderly and enigmatic repairman, who gives them a strange-looking replacement remote. The twins resume their fight over the new device, only to wind up transported into the black-and-white world of the 1950’s sitcom “Pleasantville” – David is now Bud Parker, and Jennifer assumes the role of Bud’s sister Mary Sue.

While David warns Jennifer not to interfere with the way things are ordered in their new setting, Jennifer pays no heed, introducing sex to the denizens of Pleasantville – first Mary Sue’s boyfriend, then the TV mom Betty Parker. Slowly, the town begins to change as bursts of color appear in various areas, then on the people. Books that once had blank pages now show words and pictures as the twins begin to recall stories and images from their real-world lives. And as all of this happens, the characters go off-script and begin to explore their emotions and desires.

The town’s leading citizens – all male, and led by their mayor “Big Bob” – are deeply concerned over how things have disrupted; it’s bad enough that colors are appearing and rain is falling, but now their wives aren’t making them dinner! So they begin to institute restrictions against anything that goes against the previously “pleasant” order of things, censoring books and music, even (yes, it’s on-the-nose) segregating and attacking the newly “colored” people. When David/Bud and the owner of the local burger joint are put on trial for painting a provocative mural, David begins to show that the changes they are experiencing are not some outward influence, but rooted in their own true selves:

Roger Ebert considered this one of the best films he’d ever seen – not just for the stunning cinematography and acting, but as “a social commentary of surprising power.”
The film observes that sometimes pleasant people are pleasant simply because they have never, ever been challenged. That it's scary and dangerous to learn new ways. … Pleasantville is the kind of parable that encourages us to re-evaluate the good old days and take a fresh look at the new world we so easily dismiss as decadent. Yes, we have more problems. But also more solutions, more opportunities and more freedom.
Unitarian Universalists are not immune to this desire to keep things as they are, or to hide their discomfort through a grayscale mask of outwardly pleasant behavior. Yet the values of our faith call us to question and challenge one another, to strive to understand the new and embrace what is good about it, not try to keep things as they are simply because “it’s always been that way.” One of the most paradoxical examples is the ambivalent attitude towards polyamory, with a number of ministers whispering behind the scenes that any discussion of it would somehow jeopardize efforts towards marriage equality. As someone who helped start this effort in Massachusetts in the 1990’s, I remember hearing such arguments back then. Holding off on discussing the subject was expedient at that time, but two decades later, it makes no sense now. The movement for marriage equality has gained its own momentum so that even those who oppose it have all but conceded defeat, and media coverage on polyamory has not only increased but prompted people to ask why we should worry if such arrangements seem to work best for some.

Ultimately, the real question for UUs is what kind of world we wish to live in, and to leave to our children and their children. How do our principles fit with the desperate efforts of Big Bob and his followers to keep things the same? Or perhaps, as the young people of Pleasantville discovered, our faith might – and should – offer something more wondrously liberating …

Starting a New Series: Ten Films That UUs Should Watch

Many of my friends know that I'm a movie buff. Along with appreciating the craft of filmmaking, I also see motion pictures as a rich source of iconic and mythic narrative. And if Unitarian Universalism is to be a "religion for our time" then it makes sense that we turn to film as a source of inspiration, just as we do the diversity of literature.

To that end, I've decided to start a new series of blog posts, each highlighting critically-acclaimed films which I believe are worthy of consideration by UUs -- not just for artistic merit (although that's a major factor for determining them) but the spiritual and/or moral message each one conveys.

The first nine films, in no particular order of importance, will be:
  • Pleasantville
  • Harold and Maude
  • Amélie
  • Babette’s Feast
  • Casablanca
  • Watership Down
  • Only the Lonely
  • The Great Dictator
  • Chocolat
The tenth is actually a trilogy which I strongly recommend be seen as a single epic ... and I won't say which until I do the post, although you're welcome to guess.

I may also have other posts on films later, especially if folks want to make recommendations. But, for now, keep your eyes peeled for this "top ten"!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Thoughts on “50 Shades”

Anyone who’s kept track of my Facebook postings and comments, or talked to me either online or in person, would know that I’m not really a fan of 50 Shades of Grey. The writing is amateurish, the characters are as flat as the pages they’re printed on, and the representation of BDSM is atrocious. It’s because of that last part that I couldn’t get past the scene where Christian shows Ana his dungeon, then presents her with a detailed contract, all before learning (much to his apparent annoyance) that she’s still a virgin. Christian represents the kind of clueless jerk who gets thrown out of BDSM groups.

And yet … there’s no denying that this novel evokes something in people. Set aside for a moment that it’s sold over a hundred million copies worldwide. Groups like Black Rose and The Eulenspiegel Society have seen a marked increase in new members and workshop attendees. Sex educators who previously found their “Kink 101” class offerings had little interest suddenly found that renaming it under the “50 Shades” brand suddenly filled the room. Experts are talking about bondage, role-play and other kinks more openly – and more positively – than ever before.

And that’s just the book. Wait until the movie comes out in February.

Oh, that’s right – we don’t have to wait. There’s already talk about the trailer. Plus there are groups like Morality in Media, and its recent offshoot Pornography Harms, rushing to denounce the film even before they’ve seen it. Not surprising, as their principal ideologue Gail Dines is relentless in her defamatory attacks on BDSM. Come to think of it, Dines is so quick to condemn so many forms of sexual expression and desire, one has to wonder if there’s any she does approve of. But, I digress …

If history is any guide, including and especially the history of human sexual psychology, the motion picture version of this tale will be far greater than that of the written version. The book’s popularity became viral over the Internet. And as clips and still images from the movie are downloaded and shared, they are likely to awaken desires and fantasies in who knows how many more – including many in our UU congregations.

Kinksters are already responding to this. We recognize “50 Shades” as an imperfect vessel, much as the pulp fiction novels and exploitation films were for many gay men and lesbians pre-Stonewall. Neither ignoring its impact, nor lauding it as is, will serve us well – but other options exist. The question for this post, however, is what options make the most sense for Unitarian Universalists, with regard to both public witness and pastoral care.

Both kinksters and UUs affirm and value diversity, including how people find love and pleasure. Those of us drawn to those forms identified as “kinky” have cultivated means to fulfill such desires with full consent and minimal risk of harm. Yet as the actions and words of people like Professor Dines remind us, there are people who are quick to condemn without understanding. Given our principles and core values, and the lessons of history, which course makes sense for us? I would hope our principle of truth-seeking would lead us to engage in dialogue and cooperate with those seeking to educate and promote greater awareness, amongst ourselves and with the wider world.