Category Archives: movies

The way of Nature, the way of Grace

Grace is a gift from God. And so is Nature.

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At the beginning of Terrence Malick’s masterpiece, THE TREE OF LIFE, we hear Mrs. Obrien’s voice speaking these words:

The nuns taught us there are two ways through life … the way of Nature… and the way of Grace. You have to choose which one you’ll follow. Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries. Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it too. Likes to lord it over them. To have its own way. It finds reasons to be unhappy… when all the world is shining around it… when love is smiling through all things. They taught us that no one who loves the way of grace… ever comes to a bad end. I will be true to you. Whatever comes.

These words come over images of a young girl (images above), the young Mrs. Obrien, as she interacts with Nature, and also with her father. We don’t really see her face much, we don’t see her father except for his hand and shoulder. Instead with see the world as the girl sees it, big, wonderful, full of life – and she is safe in the arms of her father.

Naturally these words set up a kind of interpretive lens through which we might analyse the film. As we follow the story we can’t help but think in terms of nature and grace. In these words we find a perspective of life held on to by Mrs. Obrien, a perspective that she learned as a child, taught to her by nuns presumably at a parochial school. Perhaps Malick is hinting at the kind of spiritual education common to Catholic schools seventy five plus years ago, and maybe he is commenting on that teaching. What is interesting, however, is how the film seemingly undercuts this philosophy. Although one is tempted to say Mrs. Obrien (in her softness and beauty) is grace and Mr. Obrien (in his hardness and anger) is nature, it is amazing how much nature permeates the film in the most loving and awesome ways. Even the film’s title, The Tree of Life, speaks of nature in connection with life. We might be tempted to see grace as the way to life, and yet we are continually being drawn back to images of nature, and in particular the tree the boys climb in the film, and by which the vision of their mother dancing in the air appears.

An interesting question is who is the protagonist in this film. Most are likely to see Jack as the protagonist. But is he? Might not Mrs. Obrien be the protagonist. If the film is a meditation on the book of Job (it opens with the book’s most famous verse), then we see both Jack’s and his mothers struggles in that light. When a boy dies in the story, a young Jack asks of God, “Where were You? You let a boy die. You let anything happen. Why should I be good when You aren’t?” This is a big moment, and a huge question for Jack. But similarly, after Jack’s brother R.L. dies (which we do not see, but only hear that he died at age 19), Mrs. Obrien cries out to God, “Lord, Why? Where were you? Did you know what happened? Do you care?” It is arguable that Mrs. Obrien’s struggle and final acceptance is the greater arc. If so, then it is possible that the film is about her coming to terms with the ideas taught to her when she was a kid, held dear for many years, and only later in life revealed to her (perhaps because of her willingness to see) as being false, or at least not entirely true.

Though my inclinations are that Jack is protagonist #1, it could be argued that the story, with all it sweeping and ephemeral qualities, is entirely in Jack’s head, being essentially his memory. If that’s the case, then it could be argued that Mrs. Obrien is the protagonist in the story going on in Jack’s head, or perhaps a co-protagonist.

Other interesting questions include which son is Mrs. Obrien giving to God at the end of the film? We assume it must be R.L., but could it be Jack? And who are the women with her at the end? We might think they are angels, but the one on the right is the girl Mrs. Obrien we saw at the film’s beginning. Might she represent the previous and less mature understanding of nature and grace? She is, after all, representing a more innocent time before adulthood, child rearing, marriage struggles, and the death of a child. And is the other woman an angel, or might she be the personification of grace itself?

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I am inclined to think the trouble many people have with watching Terrence Malick’s films, especially the later ones, is that we are a culture that no longer reads poetry. Reading poetry alters the mind to think in different ways. Poetry is the highest form of writing, and thus taps into parts of us that other writing does not, or not as well. Secondly, we do not read the classics enough, especially theology. A good dose of St. Augustine wouldn’t be bad. I’ll leave it at that.

Finally, an interesting connection is that Mrs. Obrien’s verbiage is very similar to that of Chapter 91 of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, quoted here in it entirety:

On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace (found here)

My son, carefully observe the impulses of nature and grace, for these are opposed one to another, and work in so subtle a manner that even a spiritual, holy and enlightened man can hardly distinguish them. All men do in fact desire what is good, and in what they say and do pretend to some kind of goodness, so that many are deceived by their appearance of virtue.

Nature is crafty, and seduces many, snaring and deceiving them, and always works for her own ends. But Grace moves in simplicity, avoiding every appearance of evil. She makes no attempt to deceive, and does all things purely for love of God, in whom she rests as her final goal.

Nature is unwilling to be mortified, checked or overcome, obedient or willingly subject. Grace mortifies herself, resists sensuality, submits to control, seeks to be overcome. She does not aim at enjoying her own liberty, but loves to be under discipline ; and does not wish to lord it over anyone. Rather does she desire to live, abide and exist always under God’s rule, and for His sake she is ever ready to submit it to all men.(I Pt.2:13)

Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.(I Cor.10:33) Nature is eager to receive honour and reward : Grace faithfully ascribes all honour and glory to God .(Ps 26:2:96:7) Nature fears shame and contempt: Grace is glad to suffer reproach for the Name of Jesus.(Act 5:41) Nature loves ease and rest for the body ; Grace cannot be idle, but welcomes work cheerfully.

Nature loves to enjoy rare and beautiful things, and hates the cheap and clumsy. Grace takes pleasure in simple and humble things, neither despising the rough, nor refusing to wear the old and ragged. Nature pays regard to temporal affairs, takes pleasure in this world’s wealth, grieves at any loss, and is angered by a slighting remark. But Grace pays attention to things eternal, and is not attached to the temporal. The loss of goods fails to move her, or hard words to anger her, for she lays up her treasure and joy in Heaven where none of it can be lost(Matt.6:20)

Nature is greedy, and grasps more readily than she gives, loving to retain things for her personal use. But Grace is kind and generous, shuns private interest, is contented with little, and esteems it more blest to give than to receive.(Acts 20:35) Nature inclines a man towards creatures – to the body, tovanities, to restlessness. But Grace draws a man towards God and virtue. Renouncing creatures, she flees the world, loathes the lusts of the flesh, limits her wanderings, and shuns public appearances. Nature is eager to enjoy any outward comfort that will gratify the senses. Grace seeks comfort in God alone, and delights in the Sovereign Good above all visible things.

Nature does everything for her own gain and interest; she does nothing without fee, hoping either to obtain some equal or greater return for her services, or else praise and favour. But Grace seeks no worldly return, and asks for no reward, but God alone. She desires no more of the necessaries of life than will serve her to obtain the things of eternity.

Nature takes pleasure in a host of friends and relations; she boasts of noble rank and high birth; makes herself agreeable to the powerful, flatters the rich, and acclaims those who are like herself. But Grace loves even her enemies,(Matt.5:44; Luke 6:27) takes no pride in the number of her friends, and thinks little of high birth unless it be allied to the greater virtue. She favours the poor rather than the rich, and has more in common with the honourable than with the powerful. She takes pleasure in an honest man, not in a deceiver ; she constantly encourages good men to labour earnestly for the better gifts, (I.Cor.12:31) and by means of these virtues to become like the Son of God.

Nature is quick to complain of want and hardship ; but Grace bears poverty with courage. Nature, struggling and striving on her own behalf, turns everything to her own interest: but Grace refers all things to God, from whom they come. She attributes no good to herself; she is not arrogant and presumptuous. She does not argue and exalt her own opinions before others, but submits all her powers of mind and perception to the eternal wisdom and judgement of God. Nature is curious to know secrets and to hear news; she loves to be seen in public, and to enjoy sensations. She desires recognition, and to do such things as win praise and admiration. But Grace does not care for news or novelties, because all these things spring from the age-old corruption of man, for there is nothing new or lasting in this world.

Grace therefore teaches us how the senses are to be disciplined and vain complacency avoided ; how anything likely to excite praise and admiration should be humbly concealed ; and how in all things and in all knowledge some useful fruit should be sought, together with the praise and honour of God. She wants no praise for herself or her doings, but desires that God may be blessed in His gifts, who out of pure love bestows all things.

Grace is a supernatural light, and the especial gift of God,( Eph. 2:8) the seal of His chosen and the pledge of salvation,(Eph.1:14) which raises man from earthly things to love the heavenly, and from worldly makes him spiritual. The more, therefore, that Nature is controlled and overcome, the richer is the grace bestowed, while man is daily renewed by fresh visitations after the likeness of God .(Col. 3:10)

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The Tree of Life & The Agnus Dei

Here is one of the last great scenes, perhaps the climax, of Terrence Malick’s magisterial film THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). .

The music in this scene is from Hector Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, Op. 5 (or Requiem), part 10, the Agnus Dei.

The scene is full of symbolism and not easy to grasp. Throughout the film there are many indications that the spirituality in the film is fundamentally Christian. Some might want to say that it’s natural for the spirituality to be Christian given the American context, but I think it is more. I think Malick is exploring the connections between God as creator, the creation He made, human beings receiving God through His creation and others, the suffering of human beings in light of God’s love, the death of Christ, and much more.  And I believe Malick is a Christian, though he is a very private man and it’s hard to say for sure. But the music gives us a clue.

The traditional words of the Agnus Dei, in both liturgy and music, are based upon John the Baptist’s reference in John 1:29 to Jesus (“Behold the Lamb of God that taketh away the sin of the world”), the text in Latin is:

Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis.
Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, dona nobis pacem.

which means:

Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us.
Lamb of God, you who take away the sins of the world, grant us peace.

In Berlioz’s the Grande Messe des morts, the words are as follows in Latin:

Agus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi,
dona eis requiem sempiternam.
Te decet huymnus, Deus, in Sion,
et tibit reddetur votum in Jerusalem.
Exaudi orationem meam, ad te omnis
caro veniet.
Requiem aeternam
dona defunctis, Domine, et lux
perpetua luceat eis, cum sanctis tuis
in aeternam, Domine, quia pius es.
Amen.

which means:

Lamb of God, who takest away the sins
of the world, grant them everlasting rest.
Thou, O God, art praised in Sion
and unto Thee shall the vow be
performed in Jerusalem. Hear my
prayer, unto Thee shall all flesh come.
Grant the dead eternal rest,
O Lord, and may perpetual light shine
on them, with Thy saints for ever,
Lord, because Thou art merciful.
Amen.

And while the last “amens” are being sung, the mother says: “I give him to you, I give you my son.”

Which is followed by a shot of a field of sunflowers, heliotropes that not only turn towards the sun for their life, but are images of the sun as well.

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Kubrick’s boxes

I remember in my first film history class (some several lifetimes ago) being introduced to the filmmaker Howard Hawks by way of his great film ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS (1939). One of the distinguishing thematic marks of Hawks was how he treated death and human worth, as compared to the way John Ford did. Ford loved ritual (weddings, funerals, etc.) and formality (taking off one’s hat indoors, etc.), whereas Hawks’ themes were much more existential and about the individual apart from social conventions and obligations. A pilot dies and what’s left of him are just a handful of belonging that get divided up among the other pilots. That’s it. No need for weeping or even remembering too much. For how harsh this might seem, it raises an interesting question of what we can really know about anyone from what physical objects they leave behind. The desire to know, and to sift through the objects of the deceased, intensifies if the individual in question was a genius artist.

So it goes in regards to the late Stanley Kubrick and his many boxes…

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the wheel turns, the blog continues

Back in late 2006 I wrote a blog post describing what it was like to watch movies with my family. At that time there was my wife, our six year old daughter, a dog, and me. It’s been a few years since then. Now we have three kids. Our eldest is thirteen. The next is turning seven, and the youngest turning four. We also have two dogs now, one a Labrador puppy. Our house is no bigger either.

Back then I was excited to start this blog (it used to be on Blogger), connect with other bloggers, and document my life a bit. More importantly, at that time I also was eager to write about films and connect with others cinephiles. I had always loved the movies, studied cinema in college while an undergrad and a grad student. I had had dreams of becoming both and filmmaker and a college professor teaching film studies. Neither happened. Starting this blog back in 2006 was a small way to recapture something I felt I had lost.

Then life happened. One of our children (not listed above) died in my arms. Not long after that an SUV driven by a drunk hit my wife and daughter. They nearly died and my wife had a long and painful healing process. Plus three kids, two dogs, homeschooling, work and more work, all contributed to course changes and new goals. My writing began to turn more toward my search for God, my Christian faith, and inner struggles.

Watching the kinds of films I love became harder and harder. I’m not a night owl. I get distracted easily. I find myself watching more kids films than otherwise. Writing about film seemed less and less important. Connecting with other bloggers was fine for a while, but not the same as true friendships and great discussions – but I still miss those distant folks. Oscar nominations are lists of films I have not seen. Other films bloggers have come and gone. Those that remain are excellent. I’m happy to let others do the interesting writing.

Writing, as the old saying goes is easy: just stare at the blank page until drops of blood form on your forehead. It’s hard work to write. It’s really, really hard to write well.

Well anyway… this blog continues. Perhaps I will re-enter the film writing mode of life. I love films. I am truly haunted by great films. I swoon over tracking shots. I genuinely cry at deeply moving moments. I go back and back again to films I love. It’s the way I am wired. There has never been an artform more powerful than cinema. Maybe I’ll start writing about it again.

We’ll see. Thanks for reading.

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Filmmaker: A Diary by George Lucas

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Run for your life: The opening scene from Diamonds in the Night

Opening scene from DIAMONDS IN THE NIGHT (1964) by Jan Němec. Cinematography by Jaroslav Kucera.

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Story: draw from the well of what you know

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Chinatown and the Rule of Thirds

This is a re-post from 2008. Still timeless.

Many films are beautifully shot. Few, though, are as consistently well composed as Chinatown (1974)*. Shot in Panavision (anamorphic) format with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio the somewhat extreme rectangular image would seem to offer significant challenges to effective image composition. As I was pondering this challenge I was struck by how much I loved the images in Chinatown, which I just watched again the other day. That’s when I went back to basics and considered that even with widescreen images there are still fundamentals of composition at play. In this case I figured I would grab a few images (one from each major scene) from the film and apply the Rule of Thirds to each image.

The Rule of Thirds is simply as follows:

Divide the image into thirds, both horizontally and vertically, then put the focus of the image either one third across (from either side) or one third up or down the screen. Those lines, and the points at which they intersect, are the strongest invisible forces in an image.

In Chinatown the images are constructed around those lines and intersecting points. By doing this the aspect ratio becomes a relatively mute point as the human brain automatically takes in the whole image, mentally divides the image into thirds, and finds pleasure as key visual elements are constructed around those thirds. Of course, deviation from the power of the thirds creates visual tension, which is an additional tool in the filmmaker’s toolbox.

Chinatown was shot by John A. Alonzo. He was nominated for an Oscar for best cinematography. Here are the images from the film (I, of course, added the white lines):

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Rules of storytelling according to Pixar

Disney_Pixar Compilation Image

Okay, I’m totally stealing this from the On the Page FB feed:

On Twitter, Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats has compiled the following 22 items of wisdom she’s received working for the animation studio over the years:

  1. You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.
  2. You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.
  3. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.
  4. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
  5. Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.
  6. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?
  7. Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.
  8. Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.
  9. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.
  10. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.
  11. Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.
  12. Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.
  13. Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.
  14. Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.
  15. If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.
  16. What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.
  17. No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.
  18. You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.
  19. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.
  20. Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?
  21. You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?
  22. What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Nice, huh?

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laconic

The screenplay for the film Lost in Translation (2003) was only 75 pages.

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Lost in Translation is one of my favorite films. Typically, feature length screenplays are 90 to 120 pages.

Many of my favorite directors use few words in their films: R. Bresson, A. Tarkovsky, E. Rohmer, T. Malick.

I love great dialogue, but sometimes I prefer films with little or no talking. Many of my favorite scenes are ones that are purely visual, relying on the moving image to tell the story. Relying on dialogue to tell the story is sometimes just laziness.

The screenplay I’m currently working on is 92 pages and will probably increase to around 95 pages. I was worried I didn’t write enough, but now I think it’s fine, even a bit long.

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