Poppins Fresh

The holiday season often means doing things out of the ordinary.  Despite writing books that deal with movies, I can’t afford to see them in theaters often, but we went as a family to see Mary Poppins Returns.  A few things about that: I grew up never having seen Mary Poppins (I first encountered it in college).  The new movie is neither a remake nor a sequel proper.  It follows the same basic pattern as the original but with new songs and animations, and all of it based on a somewhat darker premise—the death of the mother (which allows Jane and Michael, as adults to both be back in their childhood home) has led to financial straights that threaten to leave the Banks family homeless.  The bank has turned cruelly capitalistic and wants as many foreclosures as possible.  Sinister stuff.

The reason I mention the movie here, however, is a premise that it shares with Hook: children can see things that adults can’t.  Or more precisely, that adults learn not to see.  Some investigators of unusual phenomena suggest that as we grow we’re taught not to believe what we see if it’s impossible.  I’m in no position to assess the validity of such an assertion, being an adult, but it does give me pause for wonder.  We regularly shut out the vast majority of stimuli we experience; our brains are not capable of taking in every little detail all the time.  Instead, we’ve evolved to pay attention to that which is threatening or rewarding to our survival, and we tend to ignore many of the mundane feelings, sights, sounds, and smells that are constantly around us.  Perhaps we do shut out what we’re taught is impossible.  Mary Poppins Returns says it outright. 

In many ways this is behind the materialism we’re spoon-fed daily.  The only reality, we’re told, is that which can be measured and quantified with scientific instruments.  Any apparent reality beyond that is simply illusion.  We all know, however, that our experience of life doesn’t feel that way at all.  There seems to be no counter-argument, however, since we have no empirical evidence to offer.  Experience, we’re told, is unreliable.  Perhaps we’re not too old to learn a few things from the movies.  Mary Poppins Returns won’t likely become the cultural sensation that its forebear was, nevertheless it contains a message that may be worth preserving.  Childhood may hold the keys to understanding reality.

The Cult of Relaxation

Relaxation comes with a price.  As with most people who work hard, I find taking more than a day or two off work tricky.  It’s not that I want to go to work, but that I feel the need to keep improving my mind.  I read quite a bit on holidays, and, being of the opinion that movies are the modern mythology, I like to watch what I can.  Last night I saw a film I’m too embarrassed to name, but which was so utterly awful that I can’t get it out of my head.  Call it an experiment in relaxation.  Or call it madness.  Either way, I came to realize just how much impact a movie might have without really containing anything to give back.  This particular film is often listed as a cult classic.

I’ll confess right now that I loved Attack of the Killer Tomatoes the first time I saw it.  (This is not last night’s feature.)  It is a bad movie—so bad that it’s good.  My professional reputation may suffer for it, but I have to admit to having watched it multiple times over the years.  I’d heard that last night’s film was like that.  So bad that it’s good.  And that made me ponder the blurring of these categories.  Without a universal deity to declare the terms, good and bad are matters of consensus.  No quantitative means exists for making, a movie for example, good or bad, beyond the human judgment of viewers.  We tend to listen to critics, who experience more cinema than the rest of us can afford, but I’m sure we all have our secret likes that don’t match the decrees of the experts.

Films that flaunt convention so radically, and which gather disciples, are, as I mentioned, called “cult classics.”  This is the language of religion.  Although religionists have moved away from the use of the word, cult implies irrational intensity of devotion toward that which is clearly, in the eyes of the majority, bad.  Again we come to the question of who defines value.  For most of human history it has simply been majority opinion.  Cults, however, give meaning to those who “get it.”  Cult classics have faithful followers.  In the line of duty some months back I watched Exorcist II: The Heretic.  I later found out that it also frequently makes the list of all-time worst movies, despite starring Linda Blair, James Earl Jones, Paul Henreid, and Richard Burton.  It’s a cult classic.  The unnamed film from last night has no known stars.  Hideous acting.  Ludicrous writing.  I watched it to relax.  Now I wonder if I’ve joined a cult, or if I just need a vacation.

V November

“Remember, remember the fifth of November,” begins the parable V for Vendetta before opening on a government not unlike our own.  Fascist, built on hatred, an angry white man speaks for the few who worship nothing but power and call it God.  Tomorrow is election day, and V can also stand for Vote.  Two years ago our nation awoke in shock.  Since that day we’ve seen hate crimes transform from illegal to commendable as Neo-Nazis are described as very fine people and those who actually do the labor for the nation have been disenfranchised so the uber-wealthy can have tax cuts.  Violence isn’t the answer, but voting can be.  As soon as the GOP sensed it might lose, it began voter suppression measures.  They have never watched V.

The hope for any democracy rests in the volition to vote.  We have to be willing to inconvenience ourselves to get to the polling station tomorrow for an outcome that will decide the fate of this nation.  We’ve had “fake news” spewn out at every fact that is distasteful.  Open, bald-faced lies backed up by sycophantic adoration of a non-charismatic hater—well, have you watched V for Vendetta?  Graphic novels, it turns out, can indeed be prophetic.  And since there are other nations out there that look to emulate the land of Amerigo Vespucci’s legacy.  We have forgotten what it was like to be a colony.  Instead we prefer following blind leaders—those who can’t understand that hateful words lead to hateful deeds.  Those who can’t understand that a terrorist can be an elected official.

I’m describing V for Vendetta, of course.  The coincidence of the Roman numeral five and the word “Vote,” however, hasn’t been lost on me.  I’ve talked to those displeased with the results of election day two years ago who hadn’t gone to vote.  What we see as V designs his intricate plan is that the will of the people still matters.  But for your will to be known, you must use your voice; you must vote.  Or be victims of our own system.  We’ve had two years to see what damage can be done—a constitution treated as a napkin and due process subverted in order to ensure ill-gotten gain.  Vivid colors have been used to stain this canvas.  We don’t often receive a chance to correct imbalances but there’s a lot at stake this time.  If you doubt me, at least watch V for Vendetta and remember that parables are, by definition, true.

Credulity

So I went to see The Incredibles 2. Like the first movie, it deals with the complexities of family life amid the feelings of inadequacy when people are kept from their full potential. The idea of humans being enslaved by their screens seemed real enough. If you’ve ever tried to walk through Manhattan in a hurry you know that one of the clearest dangers is the pedestrian staring at his or her phone. People used to come to New York to see the scenery. Now you can get the full experience all online. There’s little doubt that we do need to be saved from our screens. Meet virtual reality. After only one encounter you can drop the “virtual.” Ironically, we were all sitting in a theater looking at a great big screen.

What was even more interesting was the fact that the film began with an apology for taking so long to make a sequel. An actual apology. As if no movie ever could, or should stand on its own. It’s common knowledge that sequels seldom live up to the originals. Interestingly, the villain in the movie states that people will always choose convenience over quality. That much is certain, and in an ironic way it applies to the film in which it’s uttered. I don’t believe in the crisis for creativity. It’s still out there. Original ideas are endemic to human nature. Ideas that bring in lots of money are more rare, and so we rely on the sequel. Sure things.

Publishers play this same game. Books that are completely new ideas frequently find their way from editors’ slush piles to their rejection piles. Publishers want something similar to what they’ve done before. Even better, something similar to something that sold well last time. The odds, in a capitalistic society, are stacked against creativity. It’s money that’s important, not originality. Yes, there have been books written extolling the wonders—virtues even—of originality. Such books are more easily published if they’re written by somebody already famous. So here was the dilemma in the theater: enjoy the movie or accept the message of the movie? The rare days I’m away from the screen, I’m old enough to admit, I don’t really crave it. When I come back in the door, however, the first thing I do is login to see if I’ve missed anything. Screens can lead to a strange uniformity. As long as we’re willing to pay for it, nobody will complain.

Watching Research

Now that Holy Horror’s been announced, I’m at work on my next book based on horror movies. Although some people might question the aesthetic of the horror genre, these films are sometimes remarkably intelligent and can indeed be good cinema. Having spent the better part of last weekend watching multiple flicks, however, I’ve come to realize that watching films for research is quite different than viewing them for fun. We all know the feeling of going to the theater to be exposed to the mythology of the present day; movies are the new mythology and are a common source of meaning and hope for individuals in a post-religion era. We go for the spectacle and the story. We leave, if the movie is good, with a renewed sense of purpose, or in a thoughtful state. That’s what mythology does.

In writing up my analyses of many films, I’ve noticed how little the detail is generally acknowledged in many synopses. They can make a flick seem banal. I’ve even had very intelligent people ask me why I think watching movies should be considered intellectual exercises. One reason for this, at least in my experience, is how often people rely on what they see in movies to inform them of important things. Historical events, for example. For the average person, an historical recreation on celluloid can provide recall better than a detail from some 400-page tome on the topic. Human beings are visually oriented by nature and evolution. It takes us years to learn how to read, and if we don’t keep up with the practice our ability to comprehend advanced writing atrophies. It’s easier to watch a film.

No doubt movie scripts are available for purchase. To get the message of a film, however, you need to watch. Immerse yourself in a kind of flickering light baptism. Research watching, however, involves multiple viewings. Taking notes. Watching again to make sure you got that detail correct. Some may doubt that this is an intellectual exercise at all. Still, one of the concerns that some scholars feel is that we’ve lost touch with what hoi polloi believe. People have turned to mythology from the beginning of time in the quest for meaning. Science tells us how the world works, but not why. For such questions we need our mythologies, ancient and modern. Since Nightmares with the Bible focuses on demons, I’ve had to construct a cinematic demonology that’s quite different from those of the Middle Ages. It requires, after all, a modern research method for a modern mythology. And movie watching. Lots of movie watching.

Movie Meaning

Theology has never been my thing. Now, those who don’t parse things too finely may find that an odd statement. “This blog almost always addresses religion,” they may say, “how can you say theology’s not your thing?” Perhaps for the layperson “theology” means anything having to do with religion. In the biz it has a more specific meaning. Theology is tied to a faith system. It tries to explain, rationally, what that belief system entails. Religious studies is more about studying what religion is and how it works. It was this fine distinction that put me off from reading Screening the Afterlife: Theology, Eschatology and Film. Christopher Deacy treats the subject theologically and, depending on the theologian, that can mean a lot of effort for little result. I was, however, pleased about a number of things in Deacy’s book. He doesn’t shy away from horror, for one. And he takes cinema seriously.

The idea behind the book is straightforward—theology and movies should be in dialogue about the afterlife. At a number of points Deacy makes it clear that films reach a wider audience than theology books. Again, those of us in the biz know that to be very true. If people watch movies they begin to accept what those movies tell them as true. For those of one of the established faith systems, if things haven’t altered all the much since I was young, discussing the religious meaning of a secular film is always interesting. (Some of my friends drew the line, however, when I found Elijah parallels in a film where a bread machine went out of control, but that’s a story for another time.) People take movies seriously. During economically depressed times, movies thrive. We need to pay attention to them.

The problem with theology is, no matter how open it may be, there’s always some element of rightness involved—this perspective is right and that one wrong. It can hardly be any other way. To open the door too widely is to invite yourself to exit. Deacy selects films he finds theologically meaningful when addressing (mostly) Christian views of the afterlife. I’m guessing—and it’s only a guess—that many people get their information from popular media and theologians are completely off the screen. That doesn’t mean theology has no place, but it does mean that its place is in the hands of other scholars rather than those who just want to sit around and talk about the film they saw last night. Both may be profound, but one is more clearly enjoyable than the other.

Wonders and Signs

Raised by a woman who would be perhaps classified as a “single mother” these days—she was technically married except for a very brief time just before my step-father came along—I have always had great appreciation for the power of women. She didn’t have super-powers, but she raised three young boys largely single-handedly without the help a young woman has a right to expect. Wonder Woman, when I saw her on television, struck me as a very different kind of female. Strong, yes, but clearly there for men to look at. But then again, I didn’t have the benefit of Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman. I left the theater speechless. Apart from a few sniffles my wife didn’t have much to say until about an hour later. It’s that kind of movie.

I’ve seen many superhero movies. In fact, heroes are almost custom-made for the big screen. Comic books are basically storyboards already, and the colors and action are the very definition of spectacle. Wonder Woman, however, complicates the tale of the hero fighting for justice and truth. She fights instead for peace and love. Never supposing she’s anything but capable of defeating the evils of war, she doesn’t take orders from men. She actually shames an elderly, heavyset general for not being on the field of battle where, he acknowledges, others will die for the cause of the armistice. It’s a world inverted. Yes, the men are drawn to Diana, and can’t help but be awed by her. They don’t control her, however. She’s the first out of the trenches and she requires no man’s help when combatting the enemy.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the movie is the respect it to shows to women. Only one nude body appears in the film, and it’s male. I suspect I wasn’t the only man present made uncomfortable by the curious female gaze and the assessing questions of the goddess. Women are made to sit through countless movies as the subject of the male gaze. The embarrassment here is a reminder that making women sexual objects is the normal expectation. What if the roles were reversed? When Wonder Woman fights she is largely defensive. Men want to destroy her. She responds by declaring love will overcome war and owning her role as the “God-killer.” This is a movie with substantial subtext. It challenges the paradigm of men’s rule as wise and beneficial. A god may have to die, but the world is a better place for it. We could use some inversion about now.