Saturday, November 27, 2010

The (first) end of reason

I admire the director Alejandro AmenĂ¡bar for attempting something different with his film Agora. It's got all the trappings of an historical epic--a period setting, lots of extras, big-budget sets and costumes, British actors, philosophical debates, and violence. But the movie's weakest point, commercially, at least as far as American viewers, is that the balance between ideas and actions is weighted toward the "ideas" side. There are some action scenes, but none of them are exactly cry-for-freedom, Gladiator-type crowd-rousers; instead, they are all dark and tragic.

And then there are the ideas themselves. This is one of the few major motion pictures to dare to question the place of religion, any religion, and to come down on the side of rationality and reason, even as it seems to suggest that reason will usually lose out to the fundamentalist religion with the most adherents. On the surface, the movie is about Hypatia, a female teacher and scientist who lived in 4th century Alexandria, Egypt. Apparently, little is known about her, so the film fills in quite a few blanks (for example, positing that she was believer in a heliocentric view of the solar system), but the the real subject of the movie is the conflict of religions which swirled about her.

As the film beings, Roman Egypt is largely pagan, with the Christians kept down by the pagan authorities. We see Hypatia as a beloved teacher, and at least three of her male students have unrequited crushes on her. The religious battles (which Hypatia tries to stay out of) are taken to the streets, and soon the Christians get the upper hand and a large Christian mob raids the library at Alexandria, though Hypatia and her father, the curator of the library, manage to hide some of more important documents.

Fifteen years later, most of the pagans have converted to Christianity and the three men who loved Hypatia now hold important posts in either the church or the government. Now the battles brewing are between the Christians and the Jews, and sadly the rationality and questioning reasoning of Hypatia is no longer valued in the public arena (wait, this is set in the past, right?). Hypatia comes to a bad end, which is triggered when a church leader quotes from Paul about women belonging in submission to men, and that they should neither teach nor hold authority.

There is lots of dialogue and several plot strands to follow, but for the most part, they all remain clear and intriguing. The acting is fine, especially Rachel Weisz (far above) as Hypatia and Max Minghella (above) as a slave boy who takes a liking to her. The film cost $70 million and looks it--the use of CGI for backgrounds is subtle and well-done. The few times when it's not subtle, it is extremely cool: the camera swoops down from space and focuses in, Google-map style, on Alexandria. The message about religious intolerance is sadly timely still, and probably one reason why the film didn't do very well in the States (though it drew audiences in Europe); another reason is lack of big-name stars. There is also a certain lacking in character development; besides Hypatia, no one else becomes particularly interesting. But if you want a thoughtful entertainment with great production values, about a time in history which is not frequently examined in films (Hypatia's death and the destruction of the Library of Alexandria are marked by some historians as the beginning of the Dark Ages), this is right up your alley.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Alphabetical film festival: Witches and cowboys

The Alphabetical Film Festival is taking us through three shelves worth of our favorite movies on DVD, but if I had to condense my choices to one shelf, these next two films would be on that shelf.

THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT: I don’t need to say much about the content of this little indie film that, thanks mostly to a genius marketing campaign, became a bonafide cultural phenomenon in 1999. Three young people, out alone in the woods with video cameras researching the history of the Blair Witch, who supposedly was responsible for a series of murders many years ago, get lost and can’t find their way out the woods. Over the period of several days, they begin to think that they are being stalked by the witch or some supernatural beings, and one by one, they meet bad ends. Or so it seems--one of the film’s strengths is its use of ambiguity. We have no idea what happens to the three, except that we are told at the beginning of the film that none of them were ever seen again. This movie has almost no special effects (except for some wonderful and judicious use of sound effects), no blood or gore, no scary music, and yet it is one of the 2 or 3 scariest movies I’ve ever seen.

The old truism that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do see is borne out here, Tension builds slowly over the 80 minute running time, first based on the three characters becoming frustrated over not being able to find their way back to the car, then because they aren’t getting along, and finally because weird things start happening outside their tent at night, but they can find no one in the area. We never see the witch or any other people (or creatures). We never actually see anything bad happen to any of the three: one disappears in the night and never comes back; in the hair-raising finale, one guy is standing still in the corner of a room and the woman screams and drops her camera on the floor.

In summary, it doesn’t seem so scary, but when you live through their experience with them, and put together the pieces of the Blair Witch story, it comes together to become the scariest movie since the original Halloween. When we first saw the movie, I was relatively satisfied with the ambiguous ending, but admitted to Don that I didn't quite get the last shot, of Mike standing in the corner. Don reminded me of an earlier reference to the corner of the room and I suddenly got it, and I practically screamed out loud, “Oh my God, he was in the corner!” (You’ll have to see the movie to understand.) I had nightmares for weeks. The film’s style--shaky, handheld subjective camera--has influenced many other horror films (Cloverfield, Paranormal Activity). And while the grousing and cursing among the three grow a little tedious by the third or fourth viewing, the payoff of the last 15 minutes remains effective, time after time. This is the only movie I refuse to watch alone.

BLAZING SADDLES: This is the granddaddy of the nonsense comedy which makes little sense but exists to make fun of (and to make endless references to) popular culture, specifically other movie genres. The primary genre being satirized here is the western, and the film's plot can be boiled down to a traditional western story: some bad guys are trying to lay claim to a small town because they know the property will be worth something when the train comes through; the town's new sheriff, not trusted by the people, takes the lead in the fight against the villains and becomes the town's savior. But this plot is mocked and subverted at every possible turn (cliches upended, anachronisms rampant) to the point where the film collapses on itself and, at what should be the climax, the fourth wall (between the movie and the audience) is literally broken, and the characters are revealed to be actors rampaging through the Warner Bros. soundstages.

I’m sure academic analyses have been done on this film, and it does occupy an important spot in Hollywood history, paving the way for Airplane! (and many other Zucker brothers movies), Murder By Death, the movies of Steve Martin, Jim Carrey, and Adam Sandler, not to mention the rest of Mel Brooks’ ouvere. It’s also responsible for making the very act of pop culture referencing in movies universally accepted. But it’s still, over 30 years years later, also plain, wild fun. And even though the acting in comedies like these is not usually notable, here everyone is great; Madeline Kahn got a deserved Oscar nomination for doing a Marlene Dietrich riff, but Cleavon Little and Gene Wilder also manage to create characters we care about, and Harvey Korman makes a wonderfully buffoonish villain. I could spend paragraphs quoting great lines and describing great scenes (in the way of Monty Python fans), but I’ll just end my remembering the first time I saw this movie, in a theater during its initial run, when I literally fell out of my seat laughing at the campfire scene. Fart jokes are a dime a dozen now, but this was (as far as I know) the first in movie history and probably still the best.