As I mentioned in a previous post, I’m a huge fan of Martin Scorsese. I saw Hugo this afternoon and I’m still processing it. The difficulty is not so much the movie itself; it’s beautiful, well-made, and a delightful paean to the power of imagination, dreams, and film. The puzzle for me is fitting it into Scorsese’s oeuvre.

First, if you’ve not seen it, some other reviews:

There’s a moment in the film when Hugo, the young orphan who lives in the train station and is trying to repair the automaton because he believes his dead father will deliver a message from beyond the grave, and because as a boy on his own he is seeking to end his loneliness in the company of this magical creation, talks about his place in the universe. He imagines it as a giant machine. Just as machines have no unnecessary or superfluous parts, so too the universe. He must have a place in it.

The film, on one level, offers praise of technology. But it is technology that has the power to bring our dreams to life. There is Georges Mulies himself who begins as a magician, creates an automaton that can write, and when he encounters the movies of the Lumieres brothers, imagines the power of film.

On another level, the film is a hymn to technology, to the power of technology to transport us from the lives we live into an imagined world, limited only by our imaginations. Scorsese plays off the power of film, using the story of the first viewers of the Lumieres brothers movie of a train entering a station, an experience so powerful that the first audience flinched and ducked as they feared the train hitting them. We see the train again, entering the station in Hugo’s dreams, then again, when Hugo tries to rescue the automaton from the tracks.

We see the power of imagined worlds–Scorsese’s, Hugo’s, the world of the first film-makers, and the world of books. The latter comes to life as Hugo and his friend Isabelle look at a history of movies and see pictures in a book come to life.

We see the possibility of a different world, a possibility opened up by the power of art, and love. But we also see technology. The mechanisms of clockworks dominate the film, mechanisms that make a toy wind-up mouse run across a store counter, the mechanisms that make clocks tick, automata do their magic, and movie cameras create the new worlds. Scorsese seems to be saying that this technology can create dreams, bring our dreams to life, and help us find our place in the universe. But as he looks back at the history of film, he also is calling for the importance of the preservation of its past, and the power of that old technology, and old dreams, to transport us as well. He seems to be saying, even as he makes superb use of the most modern of technology, that the vision of the first film-makers is as powerful as his own. It’s a beguiling vision.

But I’m still thinking about what he is saying about technology, even as he makes use of it. Reviewers like Roger Ebert have made a great deal of his use of 3D. I’m going to confess that this is the first 3D film I’ve ever seen. I found it curious. As a neophyte, my first exposure was not to Hugo but to the trailers that were shown first, a series of animated movies that were advertised and visually, in 3D seemed over the top and over-stimulating. Hugo was quite different. The 3D seemed to add a dimension (duh), to add depth, rather than force itself on the viewer. But I wonder what it added, other than another level of special effect to a technological marvel.

In the end, I suppose Hugo is another example of Scorsese’s love of film. He has been a leader in the preservation of of film history. In addition, it reminds of the care he takes in creating a vision of a different world for his audience. Whether it was The Age of Innocence or Casino, Scorsese draws us into the world he creates and invites us to imagine that world.

It’s also a remarkable confession of faith–to assert, as Hugo does, that everyone has a place in this universe is a remarkable statement of faith.

Scorsese to direct “Silence”

Hugo has movie critics praising Scorsese again and making lists of his greatest films. Here’s Salon’s list. I’m not going to comment on the merits of this particular list, although, how anyone can place Raging Bull below #1 is beyond me. I was a huge fan of Scorsese for many years and often tried to see his films on opening day. Some time after Casino I began to lose interest, but I am eager to see Hugo.

So after reading the list on Salon, I went poking around on and was thrilled to see that Scorsese’s long-promised film adaptation of Shusako Endo’s Silence is on the schedule with a release date of 2013. It’s a brilliant novel dealing with one of the most fascinating and tragic episodes in the history of Christianity. Daniel-Day Lewis is slated to play one of the leads.

I can’t wait to see it!

In the category of: movie stars’ poor judgment

Mel Gibson is making a movie based on the story of Judah Maccabee, which is the historical background for the Jewish celebration of Chanukah. Given the furor over the portrayal of Jews in The Passion of the Christ and his anti-semitic tirades, what can he be thinking? Let Christopher Hitchens remind us of Gibson’s attitudes.

Tree of Strife: A Jewish Take on Tree of Life

A thoughtful and engaging essay on “Tree of Life” from a Jewish perspective. Liel Liebowitz explores the conflict between nature and grace, going all the way back to Augustine and Pelagius. More interestingly, he observes that cinema is a “profoundly Jewish art form. On celluloid film and in Jewish spirituality, there’s no room for grace: One is always the hero of one’s own story, and one must always redeem oneself.”


Herein lies Malick’s true genius: As The Tree of Life ends and we file out of the theater, we are left—if our legs and our minds aren’t too numb from all those gasses and Cretaceous creatures milling about—contemplating not only creation but also creators. On the former front, Malick is a committed Catholic, and he bravely surrenders his characters to higher powers. On the latter front, he is far more radical. His quote from Job isn’t accidental. Read it before you’ve seen the movie, and it’s a Catholic exhortation on man’s eternal dependence on God’s good grace. Read if after, and it’s almost a Jewish teaching, shedding light not on man’s wretchedness but on God’s: Just as man cannot know the creator, the creator can never really share man’s earthly delights and is condemned to eternity in a lonely celestial prison cell.

More on Terence Malick’s “Tree of Life”

From The Guardian, an interview with Brad Pitt, and Michael Newton’s review.

It is a very rare talent to be able to show with equal power both the free places for which we yearn and the compromise and wickedness that makes their freedom impossible to achieve. At his best, Malick lets us share his humane, unironic and compassionate vision. He presents life as caught between a fragile innocence and an encroaching darkness.


The Tree of Life

I saw Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life this afternoon. I can’t remember the last time I was moved so much by a film. It is cinema that demands our attention and the attention of our mind and heart as well as our ears and eyes. There isn’t much plot; it’s more an evocation of 1950s childhood, with all of its nostalgia from carefree play and boys flirting with disaster, alongside the pain–the drowning death of friend in a pool, a stern, bordering on abusive father, the realities of racism.

Interspersed with that story is another one, beginning with the film’s epigraph from Job 38–the beginning of God’s answer to Job’s carefully laid out case against God–“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” and a voice-over from the ethereal Jessica Chastain (who plays the mother in the family with three rambunctious boys), highlighting the difference between nature and grace. Malick asks the question of the meaning of existence and suffering, and answers it with a spectacular depiction of creation that ends with the birth of one of those boys in Waco, and his father grasping his newborn son’s tiny foot.

We encounter one of those sons now middle-aged himself, living in antiseptic, modern apartments and working in office towers. Perhaps the sequences of childhood are a flashback, or an unconsciously selected memory of the past. We hear the boy wishing his father’s death. We also hear him lash out at his father, “How do you expect me to be good, when you aren’t good?”

There’s a heaven sequence and it seems to take place on a beach (Contact, anyone?) and there are some overwrought or odd sequences, but overall, at the end of the film I felt I had encountered something profound, or at least someone grasping beyond themselves and their craft, seeking to make sense of the world, for himself and for us.

As the credits rolled, a piano played Arthur Sullivan’s tune to the ancient Christian Easter hymn, “Welcome Happy Morning.” The English translation of the first verse reads:

“Welcome, happy morning!” age to age shall say:
“Hell today is vanquished, Heav’n is won today!”
Lo! the dead is living, God forevermore!
Him, their true Creator, all His works adore!

Others worth reading on the film:

James Martin, SJ on America Magazine’s In All Things blog:

Also from America:John Anderson’s review.

Geoffrey O’Brien in the New York Review of Books:

And Roger Ebert’s review.

But while I would not rush to read a verbal summation by Malick of his philosophical views, I would burn with irresistible curiosity to see the film of any text he might care to adapt, whether it were Spinoza’s Ethics or the phone book. He does his thinking by means of cinema in its full range of possibilities, and that is at any time a rare spectacle.


A new, mass-marketed “Christian” movie

At least it’s not “The Passion of the Christ.”


  • From America.
  • From Christianity Today: Money Quote:
    Some of the blame must be put on the screenplay, which does manage to nicely honor Bethany’s own real-life hard-won resolutions, but hits some clunky stretches getting there. Oddly, the writing seems to have fallen not only to director Sean McNamara, but to a large team of collaborators whose chief collective credits are Hawaiian Baywatch episodes. This story deserved a better brain trust.
  • From Patheos.

But to secular reviewers, the movie doesn’t seem to stand up; nor do “Christian” movies in general. Andrew O’Hehir asks, “Why are Christian movies so awful?”

There’s a larger question here. O’Hehir is right to point out that:

But when we use the buzzword “Christian” in contemporary American society, we’re talking about a distinctively modern cultural and demographic phenomenon that has almost no connection to the spiritual and intellectual tradition that fueled Dante and Milton and Leonardo and Bach.

It’s also a question asked by James Davidson Hunter in To Change the World, where he argues that contemporary Christians have largely abandoned the arts.

This phenomenon struck me as I was reading an article by Alex Ross on Bach in The New Yorker. Writing about John Eliot Gardiner’s massive project to record all 200 of Bach’s sacred cantatas, he concludes:

There is no way to tell from the sound itself that “Christ lag in Todesbanden” is being played in the Georgenkirche, in Eisenach, next to the font where Bach was baptized, in 1685. Once you know it, though, you cannot forget it. A sense of occasion, of ritual time, is sustained throughout. Gardiner adds layers of significance in his spirited liner notes, which are based on a tour diary: he speaks of visiting Buchenwald, outside Weimar; of a Leipzig pastor’s resistance to East German oppression; of French soccer fans blasting their car horns moments after one performance ended; of a spooky old cleric congratulating the musicians on having administered a good beating to the Devil. Most of all, this mammoth project—an act of devotion worthy of Bach himself—lays bare what is most human in the composer’s enterprise. Listening to “Christ lag,” I pictured Bach’s parents looking on at the baptism of the infant and wondering whether he would live. They had no idea.

At one point, he says, he listened to 50 of the cantatas during a lengthy ride through Australia and says,  “far from getting too much of a good thing, I found myself regularly hitting the repeat button. Once or twice, I stopped on the side of the road in tears.”

The arts created by Christians should have the power to evoke that response in anyone.

Vision: From the Life of Hildegard of Bingen

I was intrigued last fall when I read the NY Times review of this film by Margarethe von Trotta so we went as soon as we found out it was playing in Madison. Hildegard is a fascinating character–a Benedictine abbess who had visions, wrote music, visionary works, as well as books on healing and nature. The film is by one of Germany’s most important directors. It’s not a great film, by any means, but for the most part it comes across as a fairly decent historical depiction of Hildegard. The film does a good job of showing the interplay of religion, politics, and family ties, and also highlights the patriarchy of the Middle Ages and of the medieval Church. At times, it seems to be something of a catalog of Hildegard’s activities, moving from scenes showing her instructing her nuns on the healing powers of herbs, to composing music, to writing. The visions are a constant and von Trotta also subtly raises questions about the relationship between Hildegard’s physical ailments and her religious experiences. She also hints that Hildegard may have used faked illness to get her way.

It’s definitely worth seeing if you are interested in medieval history or German cinema, but if you’re looking for action and excitement, the most you’ll get are a few scenes of monks and nuns flagellating themselves, a practice Hildegard criticized.

I guess I went to the wrong movies this week. Oh well.

So I saw Black Swan and The King’s Speech. Apparently, I should have gone to True Grit, instead; at least according to Stanley Fish.

In case you’re wondering–both were worth watching. Black Swan for the cinematography and Natalie Portman’s performance. I don’t quite buy Mahnola Dargis’s take on it.

The King’s Speech was wonderful. I learned a great deal about an important historical figure about him I knew almost nothing. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush were both brilliant.

Perhaps I’ll find time later in the week for True Grit. I’ve been a huge fan of the Coen brothers since the very beginning.