Tag Archives: Best Picture nominees

And the Nominees Are . . .

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.
Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

This morning in Hollywood, the nominations for the 2016 Academy Awards were announced. If you’re a film-lover like me, this time of year is the post-season, where the hundreds of films released over the past year have been culled to a short list of the elite, and soon, there will be only one—the Best Picture of the Year. The problem with the post-season comparison, of course, is that athletes only compete within their sport, whereas films of completely different genres are all lumped together and pitted against one another for Best Picture. This is essentially like comparing apples to Ferraris. Their only commonalities are: they are both things, and they are both red. And the latter isn’t even true all of the time.

As a result of the apples and Ferraris conundrum, the Academy increased the number of possible Best Picture nominees from five to ten for the 2010 awards ceremony in order to allow a wider variety of films to be represented. As it turns out, 2010 and 2011 have been the only years that all ten nominations spots have been filled; 2012–2014 each saw nine films nominated, and, as in 2015, this year there are only eight. While I initially bristled at the increase in nominated films, this year I am once again surprised at the fact that the Academy didn’t just go ahead and fill all ten slots (Dear Academy: Could we nominate just one comedy some year? Maybe?? Please???).

In which J.Law seems to have forgotten that she won the previous year. . . Everybody wants Oscar.
In which J.Law seems to have forgotten that she won the previous year. . . Everybody wants Oscar.

Then I remembered that the Oscar nominations represent the culmination of often politically charged marketing campaigns spearheaded by studios intent upon garnering awards (like a sports team shelling out big bucks for a key player in order to win championships), and this reality means that good films—even excellent films—are sometimes reduced to collateral damage.

Despite these and other flaws inherent in the system (including once again a complete lack of diversity in the acting nominees), I still love the Oscars because they provide people a way in to discovering, thinking about, and talking about movies, and movies in turn provide people a way in to discovering, thinking about, and talking about those things that are part and parcel of human life: identity and the search for it, relationships and all their glorious and heartbreaking complexities, the presence of evil and the struggle for good. And when films tell these human narratives in an authentic and compelling way, I would argue that they have the capacity to open audiences up to encountering a deeper narrative, indeed, the narrative—the narrative that insists that humanity has its source and its summit in something other than itself; the narrative that reassures us that death and evil will ultimately falter and life and love will triumph; the narrative that points, in the end, to God.

Granted, this capacity varies from film to film. Some films, like last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), open viewers up to this deeper narrative by offering a cautionary tale, encouraging us to rethink and perhaps change the ways we live and interact with family, loved ones, strangers, even ourselves. But others, like Best Picture winners A Man for All Seasons, Ghandi, Schindler’s List, Forrest Gump, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and 12 Years a Slave, have the capacity to inspire us to be better human beings by presenting us with a picture of humanity’s own capacity to transcend itself precisely through entry into that deeper narrative. All good art does this for those who take the time to look closely and listen carefully.

And so, over the next several weeks, we here at Oblation will once again be taking a closer look at this year’s Best Picture nominees in the hopes of discovering within their individual narratives seeds of the narrative. As we’ve learned over the past couple of years, this task will be more difficult for some films than others, but this series will afford us the opportunity to engage with “popular culture” and “secular media” in ways that are intriguing and challenging for us and, hopefully, uplifting and life-giving for you (or at the very least, entertaining). As Siskel and Ebert used to say, “See you at the movies.”

And the Nominees Are. . . 2015 Recap

Carolyn PirtleCarolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

With the 87th Academy Awards ceremony taking place this Sunday evening, we here at Oblation wanted to provide our readers with a convenient recap of our recent series reviewing each of the eight Best Picture nominees from a theological perspective. Excerpts appear below, and the title links will take you to the full reviews. (Reminder: spoilers pretty much abound throughout.)

American Sniper (by Lenny DeLorenzo)

American Sniper is a tragedy from start to finish: it is tragic that there was—or was deemed to be—cause for war in Iraq; it is tragic that the duty of “overwatch” was necessary in case of ambush; it is tragic that insurgents had cause to fight; it is tragic that civilians were caught in the crossfire; it is tragic that violence like this exists at all. Most of all, it is a tragedy because it operates on the presumption that war is inevitable—that the wolves always lurk in the darkness and the sheepdog’s heroism is predicated upon this threat. What the attention to the complex paradoxical relationship between distance and intimacy in this film allows, however, is for the consideration of how what happens in and around the distant figure of Kyle is relevant to how remoteness roots out intimacy for anyone.

Birdman (by Carolyn Pirtle)

Riggan is ignorant of the things that truly matter. He is motivated solely by ambition—the desire for fame, critical praise, and most of all relevance, no matter what their cost may be to himself or those closest to him. . . . Riggan’s hero’s quest—to feel himself beloved—is fed by his interior dialogue with Birdman, his ego and shadow self. Yet this hero’s quest is revealed to be a fool’s errand as Riggan continuously seeks love, not from the friends and family who know him as he truly is, but from the anonymous masses who are ignorant of his true identity, recognizing him only in the role he once played.

Boyhood (by Jessica Keating)

In short, we see the “small moments and the life they add up to,” the overlooked, the precarious. The film could have been moving, even beautiful. Life, the film strives to demonstrate, is not a series of momentous events, but it is lived out in the ordinary, in the hidden. In the end, however, Boyhood is bereft of vision. The ordinary is not only not transfigured, but the film asserts that it is untransfigurable.

The Grand Budapest Hotel (by Timothy O’Malley)

The conclusion of the film elicits in the viewer a kind of sadness, a longing for a world that has passed. But perhaps, it is incorrect to call it “nostalgic yearning.” Perhaps what Anderson is really doing in all his films, is showing us a reality that is far more enchanted than we realize. There is a glorious mystery to ordinary existence, a beauty that gives itself to us around every corner. Yet what is almost salvific about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that Anderson does not let us pass too quickly over the darkness. It is not a Pollyannaish whimsy. The darkness of history intervenes but even it cannot entirely stifle this vision. Stories continue to be told, inviting us to re-imagine our world once again, to see colors even where there is only gray.

The Imitation Game (by Renée Roden)

…what the film suggests is the troubling lie that we are all very susceptible to swallowing: that having superior knowledge and superior intellect gives those in possession of them the ability to make right moral judgments. There is very little questioning of the moral system set up by the film that ‘because this person knows more than I,’ he cannot be wrong.

Selma (by Susan Reynolds)

Selma urges us to recognize that racial injustice is not a vestige of some distant, ignorant past but rather a shameful reality that continues to be reflected in the majority of our parishes, schools, and communities. . . . Such a realization is indeed cause for lament.
But Selma’s vision, like that of all laments, is ultimately a hopeful one—it is a vision that urges us to be propelled forward in prayer and action by what King termed the “fierce urgency of now.” As we contemplate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the next forty days [of Lent], may we have the courage to see, name, and stand against systems of social sin complicit in sanctioning the crucifying forces of racial oppression.

The Theory of Everything (by Carolyn Pirtle)

Hawking’s quest to explain the cosmos and his insistence that this can be done on the basis of scientific reason, through “human endeavor” alone, leaves no room for mystery, and it is mystery that lies at the heart of every human person and (though Hawking would argue otherwise) at the heart of the universe. Indeed, it is this search for a theory which, for Hawking, necessitates putting the possibility of a Creator God on the shelf in favor of a completely rational approach, that renders him incapable of seeing the truth: that the one theory isn’t a theory at all, but a reality, and that this reality isn’t expressed in an equation, but in a communion of Persons—a relationship of love.

Whiplash (by Sam Bellafiore)

…what Fletcher sells and Andrew buys is art that’s lost its goal and context. Art is an inherent good, but humans alone make and experience it. That means it’s a good in itself for humans to pursue. Its goodness is not regardless of, separate from, or outside its relation to human beings. This doesn’t mean art is a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, art is part of becoming human.
“Art for its own sake” — ars gratia artis — is a lie.  Whiplash shows what happens when art forgets its humanity. It becomes a beast. Fletcher has made art a greater good than human life. For the sake of creating art, Fletcher is willing to destroy people. In his world, the human is subsumed in sacrifice to the life of art. It is a greater crime to deprive the world of real art than to deprive it of a real person.

And the Nominees Are. . . The Imitation Game

Renee RodenRenée Roden

AmeriCorps Volunteer

 

 

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Blood-Soaked Calculus

“Are you paying attention?”

After a bout of regular movie-going preview fare: poor Paddington bear being subjected to idiotic stunts and buffoonish mishaps; some robot threatening all of civilization and Hugh Jackman; and several hundred explosions caused by unidentified killing machines and American movie-going audiences’ incessant desire for brainless spectacle, Morten Tyldum’s moving, yet ultimately unsatisfying, The Imitation Game begins with the refreshing command for all of us to pay attention. After the barrage upon our senses of crass explosions and relentless moronic activity, the opening of the film is a palate-cleansing dose of subtlety, promising more mental activity than physical, and nary a single killer robot to be seen.

Yet, like a gangly teenager trying to Lindy Hop, the film’s footing falls askew from the very beginning. In a move that feels a little heavy-handed, we, the audience are put in the place of the sympathetic police investigator (Rory Kinnear), and commanded to listen carefully, and not to judge until the end. It’s over-used rhetoric, and registers as a little pompous and stilted. From the very beginning, there is a ring of self-importance to the film. Already, a division has been set up: we are to watch, observe, listen, and not interrupt. We stand outside of the story, outside of—to borrow the title phrase from an essay by C.S. Lewis—this “Inner Ring.”

In this essay, Lewis discusses mankind’s fascination with the small group of people who are really calling the shots; really making the decisions; sending out life or death sentences. We are fascinated with the idea of a secret, hidden few who are really in charge, and more than Cumberbatch’s fascinating (when is Benedict Cumberbatch not fascinating to watch?), but (dare I say it?) rather hackneyed portrayal of a socially maladroit genius, it is this air of falsity, this sense of secrecy that was, I found, the facet of The Imitation Game that captured me the most. In the film, we see this inner ring most poignantly depicted in the scenes in which the our little troupe of code-crackers decides which messages from Enigma to act upon, and which to ignore. In reality, these decisions were made by higher authorities in the British army, and thank God for that. What person would want their fate in the hands of a high-functioning mathematical genius and his merry men: the womanizer, the spy, and the boyish-silent-one with all the authoritative presence of a summer intern?

But what the film suggests is the troubling lie that we are all very susceptible to swallowing: that having superior knowledge and superior intellect gives those in possession of them the ability to make right moral judgments. There is very little questioning of the moral system set up by the film that ‘because this person knows more than I,’ he cannot be wrong.

The two moments in the film that were most deeply moving were, firstly, of course, the ending, in which Turing’s body has been reduced to a shaking shell by his court-mandated hormone treatment. His mental acumen is hidden inside a chemically castrated walking corpse, and any human with a shred of empathy will be moved by the film’s short, tragic coda.

The second was when poor Peter (Matthew Beard, oozing incompetent, doe-eyed chutzpah as the token boyish protégé in our motley code-cracking crew) learns that his brother is on a ship about to be taken down by a team of German U-Boats. Having just cracked Enigma, the Hut 8 team could, if acting in the next few minutes, save the lives of everyone on the ship. But just when they are about to dial up whichever commanding officer has the power to save these poor unfortunate souls. . .

Stop! commands Benedict Cumberbatch, authoritatively. He’s right, chirps up Keira Knightley, with a glimmer of understanding in her eye. They cannot save this convoy of ships, as the Germans would then know that they had cracked Enigma (excellent cinematography covers up a multitude of leaps of logic). They must bide their time, and let the people on board perish, for the sake of the greater good—for the sake of winning the war. Peter naturally tries to reach the phone to dial an authority who could save his brother, and he has to be physically restrained by the others. It is a rather violent moment, as though the violence they inflict on Peter is a physical manifestation of the violence being inflicted on innocent people a thousand miles away.

As I watched Peter cry over the inevitable loss of his beloved older brother, I found myself somewhat alienated from the film, which glosses over his loss with a noble shrug. Peter is (quite understandably and justifiably) angry at Alan for several scenes afterwards. In response to these snubs and cold-shoulders, Alan assumes a pained, sympathetic, “oh my dear lad, you’ll understand when you’re older” expression in reaction to Peter’s angered hurt. Peter’s loss, the loss of those lives, is simply the collateral damage of a Greater Mission to be carried out by the few who Truly Know.

What troubled me most about this moment is that the film decidedly and unquestioningly sides with Alan. Yet, the majority of human beings would naturally, instinctively, act as Peter would, throwing all concern for a theoretical, vague, long-term plan out the window in the momentary demand for action. While maybe not technically the smartest or best-calculated course of action, in moments when a person’s life is in danger, our hearts usually trump the “wisdom” of our heads. The pressing need of the moment to save lives in danger—and a family member’s life, no less—outweighs a yet non-existent goal to be achieved. But the film does not even cast a critical glance at the Turing’s decision in that moment.

This trial of Peter’s mirrors the ending scene of the film. It was, like that final scene, one of the most human moments of the entire biopic: a human in pain, wrestling with the fact that he is quite helpless under the unjust lot dealt to him by those in authority. It is a moment full of pathos, and it ought to break your heart. But, because Peter is not extraordinary, his input does not carry as much weight as Alan’s. Because Peter is not brilliant, but (comparatively) simple, because he feels ordinary human emotions, because he is the rule, not the exception, because he is not a part of the brilliant inner ring, his desired course of action must somehow be wrong. On the other hand, because Alan is the smartest one amongst us, he must be the wisest. He can do no wrong. Of course his actions must be the right course of action, because he is smarter than you are.

Are you paying attention?

This leap of logic is one that we make every single day. Often, we struggle to believe that someone we think of as honorable or good could ever do something wrong, based solely on the fact that we have known them to be honorable or good. In our desire for consistency, we are loathe to acknowledge that human beings act inconsistently. It is more pleasant to imagine that all geniuses are benevolent than to acknowledge that many times human beings who have the most power and the most knowledge can truly act the most selfishly. Or, an even more subtle distinction: a person can be a truly unselfish person, but can act in a selfish manner. None of us are immune from character flaws, and even those of us with sterling characters and golden pedigrees can make wrong decisions.

Despite the excellent acting, the beautiful production values, and the well-paced action, what I found to be ultimately frustrating and unsatisfying about the story is that many of the historical facts—which are (like most of real life) more nuanced, more complicated, and more interesting than slick Hollywood clichés—are eschewed for the sake of a rather well-trodden plot structure: Solitary Outsider Has Knowledge No One Else Has. Uses It To Save World. World Turns on Him. Nobody Understands Him.

It seems as though, perhaps, the producers and writers were dumbing things down for us—the audience—those of us outsiders who will just never understand. Thus, the movie was, I found, ultimately somewhat alienating. Instead of wrestling with the humanity of an eccentric, lively, and witty mathematical genius—an ordinary man, who happened to be equipped with an extraordinary mind—Benedict Cumberbatch re-creates his Sherlock schtick of a man rendered incapable of feeling and thinking like the rest of humanity by virtue of his god-like mental ability, thereby creating an impassable divide between Turing and anyone watching the film, between the enlightened few and the rest of us left outside in the darkness.

Yet, in reading more about the man who inspired this film, I have discovered that Alan Turing was not Sherlock-in-wartime-tweeds, but rather a unique, undefinable individual: sexual, witty, personable, alive, and very, very human. Perhaps The Imitation Game could have listened to its own mantra and hold up these more human qualities in Turing, thus creating a more relatable protagonist: Sometimes it is the people who no one imagines anything of who do the things that no one can imagine.

The people who no one imagines anything of. In other words, ordinary people; people who are not necessarily part of “the inner ring”; people like the suburban mother, like the math nerd who doesn’t play sports, like the put-upon office secretary, like the schoolboy in love with his best friend,  like you, like me.

And the Nominees Are. . . Selma

Susan Bigelow ReynoldsSusan Bigelow Reynolds
Ph.D. Student, Theology and Education, Boston College

 

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

In the first of five appearances on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” on April 17, 1960, Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remarked,

“I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies, that 11:00 on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours, if not the most segregated hour, in Christian America.

King continued:

“Any church that stands against integration and that has a segregated body is standing against the spirit and the teachings of Jesus Christ and it fails to be a true witness.”

Five years later, King and other leaders of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference arrived in Selma, Alabama to raise public consciousness surrounding the widespread and systematic disenfranchisement of black citizens throughout the South. The passions, deaths, and resurrections that followed are the subject of Selma, arguably the most theologically rich and spiritually rousing Best Picture nominee of the year. As Lent approaches, I want to suggest that one might view the film as a lament that invites an examination of conscience surrounding issues of racial injustice that persist in ways both obvious and insidious within church and society.

Theologically speaking, a lament can be understood as an act of truth-telling that evokes public moral consciousness and opens a space for compassionate, transformative action. To lament is to name—and in naming protest—conditions of suffering and injustice and to envision a future of justice and restored relationship in light of a hope-filled vision of the Kingdom of God. Mourning in its least sanitized, most visceral and honest forms occasions sustained presence to that which should not be—it allows us, perhaps even forces us, to be interrupted by reality.

Selma interrupts us. We are interrupted by the murder of 26-year-old Jimmie Lee Jackson (Keith Stanfield), who is shot at close range by a state trooper while participating in a peaceful night march and dies in the arms of his mother. In one of the film’s most powerful scenes, King (depicted brilliantly by David Oyelowo) approaches Cager Lee (Henry G. Sanders), Jimmie’s grandfather, and with tears in his eyes tells him, “There are no words to soothe you, Mr. Lee… But I can tell you one thing for certain: God was the first to cry for your boy.”

As marchers make their first attempt to walk from Selma to Montgomery, we are interrupted, as they are, by state troopers. Mounted on horseback and armed with billy clubs and tear gas, police brutalize marchers as they attempt to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge; crowds of white onlookers cheer on the troopers as though watching a football game. The bruised and bleeding marchers retreat to Brown Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, which serves as the staging ground for the protests. The makeshift triage unit assembled outside the church calls to mind comparisons to Pope Francis’ evocative image of the Church as a field hospital in a wounded world.

In response to the massacre that would become known as Bloody Sunday, King issues a nationwide call for supporters to travel to Selma to join the march. Clergy and laypersons from around the country, including many non-blacks, heed the call—acts of solidarity which cost several, including Boston minister James Reeb (Jeremy Strong) and Detroit wife and mother Viola Luizzo (Tara Ochs), their lives at the hands of the KKK.

In the second march, King—to the astonishment of the thousands who have gathered to join him—abruptly turns around after kneeling down to pray. The literal about-face is a jarring, disorienting moment, a seeming interruption of the momentum occasioned by such a powerful show of solidarity. But King discerns that the march would likely end in disaster without a court order of protection. After receiving such an order, and following on the heels of President Lyndon Johnson’s speech to a joint session of Congress introducing the Voting Rights Act, King and roughly 8,000 fellow marchers finally, joyfully complete the five-day journey from Selma to Montgomery.

The film concludes as King delivers his now-famous speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol. The speech, rewritten in the screenplay, does not include the iconic “How long? Not long!” line from the original. Instead, Selma’s King cites another eschatological refrain: “When will we be free? Soon and very soon. Because no lie can live forever.”

Selma offers us many things, not the least of which is the opportunity to be interrupted by a more nuanced and arguably more authentic portrayal of King than the benign, storybook characterizations to which we have become accustomed. Much of this good work must be credited to director Ava DuVernay, with regard to whom I would join the chorus of critics and viewers dismayed by her lack of nomination in the Best Director category. DuVernay has been critiqued for her arguably unfair portrayal of President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). In Selma, Johnson is an advocate for the cause of racial justice but an initial adversary to the proposal of the Voting Rights Act based on its politically inconvenient timing. In reality, those once close to Johnson have countered, Johnson pushed hard for the bill and ultimately considered it the greatest legislative achievement of his administration.

If Selma were a documentary, such factual tensions might present themselves as more of an issue (not to mention the fact that, as Caroline Siede points out in this AV Club review, virtually all historical dramas—including others lauded this awards season—take degrees of liberty with historical events without inciting the kind of vitriol DuVernay has). But like all such dramas, Selma is a work of interpretation. And in this case, the film can be viewed as a challenge to a largely-white entertainment industry uncomfortable with and unaccustomed to stories about race that do not require the well-intentioned intervention of a proverbial white savior in order for black subjects to triumph.

How can we as Catholics and Americans invite Selma to interrupt us this Lenten season? Fourteen years after the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery and passage of the Voting Rights Act, the U.S. Catholic Bishops published Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979), its most developed (and most recent) pastoral letter on racism and Catholic teaching. In it, the Bishops denounced racism as “not merely one sin among many; it is a radical evil that divides the human family and denies the new creation of a redeemed world” (387).

Though the document offers a thorough and self-critical examination of racism in the Church and society, the relatively little attention it received at the time of its publication and its meager legacy today testify to the appallingly low priority placed upon racism as a social justice issue. Only a decade after its publication, the Bishops’ Committee on Black Catholics lamented diocesan responses to the letter’s call to action as “pathetic” and “anemic.” Today, the document and the teaching it represents remain virtually unknown amongst Catholics. Indeed, as theologian Fr. Bryan Massingale observes, despite the Bishops’ forceful condemnation of racism as a radical evil, “perhaps the most remarkable thing to note concerning U.S. Catholic social teaching on racism is how little there is to note.”[1]

A half-century after protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery, Selma urges us to recognize that racial injustice is not a vestige of some distant, ignorant past but rather a shameful reality that continues to be reflected in the majority of our parishes, schools, and communities. (For a powerful expression of this connection, listen to “Glory,” the Oscar-nominated original song from the film performed by John Legend and Common). The terrible irony persists that the hour in which we gather to celebrate the Body and Blood of Christ in liturgy remains for many of us, just as King observed in 1960, the hour in which we least image the diversity of Christ’s Body. Such a realization is indeed cause for lament.

But Selma’s vision, like that of all laments, is ultimately a hopeful one—it is a vision that urges us to be propelled forward in prayer and action by what King termed the “fierce urgency of now.” As we contemplate the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ throughout the next forty days, may we have the courage to see, name, and stand against systems of social sin complicit in sanctioning the crucifying forces of racial oppression. 

Recommended Lenten Reading:
James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (2013)
Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (2009)
Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (2012)
USCCB, Brothers and Sisters to Us (1979)

[1] Bryan N. Massingale, Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), 43.

And the Nominees Are. . . Boyhood

Jessica Keating, M.Div.
Program Director,
Human Dignity and Life Initiatives
University of Notre Dame

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

As Time Goes By

Few, if any, of this year’s Oscar nominees have received such an enthusiastic reception as Boyhood. The film, shot in 4-5 day sequences over course of 12 years, has earned its director Richard Linklater accolades for his daring innovation, the blending of genres, and the beauty of capturing life’s hidden arcs and curves. New York Times film critic, Manohla Dargis, raved that Boyhood “exists at the juncture of classical cinema and the modern art film without being slavishly indebted to either tradition. It’s a model of cinematic realism.”  Declaring the film a “masterpiece,” Dargis wrote that it embraced time “in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty.” A.O. Scott gave the film the number one ranking in his review of the top 10 movies of 2014, lauding “the ingenuity of Richard Linklater’s idea and the artistry of his methods.” Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday gushed, “As a film that dares to honor small moments and the life they add up to, Boyhood isn’t just a masterpiece. It’s a miracle.” You get the picture. In short, the film has garnered near-perfect reviews.

A very few critics have complained that nothing happens in Boyhood. On a very practical level, this assertion is clearly false. The film threads together a myriad of scenes throughout Mason’s childhood and adolescence. We see his father, Mason Sr., and his mother, Olivia, pursue other relationships. She pursues a master’s degree and teaching career. He pursues a bohemian existence. We see Mason Sr. swoop in and out of his kids’ lives. We hear Olivia curse at her children. We hear her read them bedtime stories and tell themdownload she loves them. We hear her ask her daughter, “Do you want to be a cooperative person, who is compassionate and helps people out? Or do you want to be a self-centered narcissist?” We see domestic violence. We see Mason, his sister Samantha, and their father at a Houston Astros game. We see Olivia and her children move. We see the children fight in the back of the car. We see underage drinking. We see the paying of bills, the fights, the laughter, the trudging of this family through life, but there isn’t any more than this. It is the film’s mere materiality that has caused some to observe that nothing happens in the film or that it lacks a plot. But things do happen, and the film does have a plot, a plot which is both irreducibly simple and most complex: the unfolding of a life. The problem isn’t a lack of action; rather, it is the soft nihilism that pervades the film.

Personally, I can only compare watching this film to enduring the interminable South Bend winter—the perpetual greyness, the hope 54ad7b63353c8.imagefor a snow day that never comes, the slogging through blackened
slush, passing hundreds of people bundled up against the wind, but unable to quite make out their faces, the crushing feeling in mid-March (or two hours into the film) that this really may never end.

In short, we see the “small moments and the life they add up to,” the overlooked, the precarious. The film could have been moving, even beautiful. Life, the film strives to demonstrate, is not a series of momentous events, but it is lived out in the ordinary, in the hidden. In the end, however, Boyhood is bereft of vision. The ordinary is not only not transfigured, but the film asserts that it is untransfigurable. To continue the image of a South Bend winter, making out the characters in the film was for me akin to trying to decipher whether the person hidden under the layers of coats, scarves, and hats is someone you know or a total stranger. In Boyhood, Linklater and hisst_thereselaundry actors never quite allow us to encounter the mystery of the human person, the person who becomes all the more mysterious the more keenly we see him. Instead, we encounter layers of obfuscation, which deflect meaning and obscure mystery. This is the “progress report on our spiritual condition,” as A.O. Scott remarks in his praise of the film. Neither its characters, nor the dozens of “small moments and the life,” nor the arc of the film, offer anything more than existential immediacy. In the end, Boyhood struck me as an incurving of St. Therese of Lisieux’s “Little Way” – all of the littleness and none of the horizon, none of the “way.”

The film opens with a six-year-old Mason lying on his back, his left arm tucked under his head, gazing up to the sky, watching clouds drift overhead. Even as a child, Mason’s gaze expresses something 20148190_1_IMG_FIX_700x700
less than wonder. Instead, he seems to stare up at the sky in lonely resignation. The film’s logic lies concealed in this opening scene, and is only fully manifested in the final dialogue. The child, who in the opening scene watches the clouds float past, becomes a young adult gazing out over a gorgeous mountainsunset, content to watch life’s moments seize him and drift past. His last words in the film observe the fleeting banality of life: “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant, the moments, it’s just…it’s like always right now, you know?” “Yeah,” says the girl sitting next to him. They smile at each other, and the screen fades. Thus, Boyhood concludes with a kind of immature hubris. Indeed, the eighteen-year-old Mason is a kind of cipher for the entire film. He grasps at profundity but comes up empty.

Bookended by these listless, and in some sense solitary, scenes of resignation, Mason’s final exchange with each of his parents lay bare the film as a project in unsaying meaning.

In the final scene with his father, Mason finds himself precariously wedged between the crushing failure of his first relationship and the moderate success of placing in a state-wide photography contest. He asks his father, “So what’s the point?” In a response that shows he’s entirely missed the depth of the question, Mason Sr. asks, “Of what?” “I don’t know, any of this. Everything,” his son replies. The film cavalierly registers its claim as Mason Sr. answers, “Everything? What’s the point? I mean I sure as s**t don’t know. I mean, but, neither does anybody else. Okay, we’re all just winging it, you know? I mean the good news is you’re feeling stuff. You know? And you got to hold onto that. You do.”

In another final scene and in another valence, Olivia presents the film’s logic. Tearfully packing Mason up for college, she confesses to her 18-year-old son: “You know what I’m realizing? My life is just gonna go, like that! This series of milestones. Getting married, having kids, getting divorced, the time that we thought you were dyslexic, when I taught you how to ride a bike, getting divorced AGAIN, getting my master’s degree, finally getting the job I wanted, sending Samantha off to college, sending YOU off the college… You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my f**kin’ funeral! [She pauses for a beat.] I just thought there would be more.” Olivia’s disappointed conclusion (these are the last words she speaks in the film), registers the characters’ inability to see meaning, to see life as anything more than a series of events. In the end, the film refuses to allow that life is anything other than the irreducibly pedestrian and the mundane.

And the Nominees Are. . . Whiplash

Samuel BellafioreScreen Shot 2015-01-23 at 1.43.20 PM

Undergraduate Fellow

B.A. 2015 Philosophy, Vocal Performance


Editors’ Note:

In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Harmed in the Making: Whiplash and the Ethics of Art

Whiplash is a story about choices. Andrew (Miles Teller) enrolls as a freshman in fictional Shaffer Conservatory in New York City to study jazz drumming. The movie opens with the lights on Andrew, practicing in an otherwise dark room at the end of a hallway.

Faculty conductor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons) covertly listens to Andrew, emerges from the dark hallway and chooses him to join his advanced ensemble. When Andrew comes for the first rehearsal, Fletcher replaces the upperclassmen lead drummer with Andrew. Fletcher encourages him, “The key is — relax. Don’t worry about the numbers or what the other players think. You’re here for a reason. You believe that, don’t you?”

Not for long. Within minutes, Fletcherwhiplash-scream has thrown a chair at Andrew and violently slapped him. He abuses his band, curses them out, makes them weep, sweat and bleed. Because of Fletcher, a former student commits suicide.

As the movie continues, it becomes clear why he does what he does.

The one thing he wants is to make someone into a “great.” Throughout the movie he and Andrew cite how conductor Jo Jones motivated saxophonist Charlie Parker by hurling a cymbal at him. Fletcher explains to Andrew:

Young kid, pretty good on the sax, goes up to play his solo in a cutting session, f***s up — and Jones comes this close to slicing his head off for it. He’s laughed off-stage. Cries himself to sleep that night. But the next morning, what does he do? He practices. And practices and practices. With one goal in mind: that he never ever be laughed off-stage again. A year later he goes back . . . and he plays the best motherf***ing solo the world had ever heard.

In the same scene Fletcher articulates his philosophy, a moral imperative about talent:

Any idiot can move his hands and keep people in tempo. No, it’s about pushing people beyond what’s expected of them. And I believe that is an absolute necessity. Because without it you’re depriving the world of its next [Louis] Armstrong. Its next Parker.

Fletcher’s violent pedagogy points out a dilemma. You can have Whiplash1healthy humans, ones whose hands aren’t bleeding from hours of practice, or you can have really good art.

Can we blame Fletcher for implicitly raising this thorny issue? Fletcher’s position shows that human goods often conflict and compete. Practicing the amount it takes to become an expert means giving things up.

At the beginning of college, Andrew still attends the movies weekly with his loyal father, a struggling writer. Not long after he starts in the new band, he ends the practice.

Andrew then forsakes his relationship with Nicole (Melissa Benoist), a sweet Fordham freshman who works at the movie theater.  After barely a date or two Andrew explains to Nicole why they can’t stay together. He wants to be great. He will keep practicing more, she’ll be upset with him for not spending time with her, so he’ll start resenting her. It’ll become a ball of hate and fall apart. So he ends it.

Nicole is one the filmWhiplash-6206.cr2’s few images of tenderness. She presents a hope that Andrew might hold back from subsuming his humanity in his art. She represents human-ness, a light in which Andrew could see himself first as a person, then an artist. But he can’t see this. She’s standing in front of his greatness.

As the movie continues, Andrew’s pride and obsession with drumming grow together. Fletcher continues his verbal, physical and emotional abuse, eventually gaining a psychological hold on Andrew. Andrew wants Fletcher’s favor, for which it turns out he is willing almost to die.

But what Fletcher sells and Andrew buys is art that’s lost its goal and context. Art is an inherent good, but humans alone make and experience it. That means it’s a good in itself for humans to pursue. Its goodness is not regardless of, separate from, or outside its relation to human beings. This doesn’t mean art is a means to the end of human flourishing. Instead, art is part of becoming human.

“Art for its own sake” — ars gratia artis — is a lie.  Whiplash sScreen Shot 2015-02-10 at 10.39.16 PMhows what happens when art forgets its humanity. It becomes a beast. Fletcher has made art a greater good than human life. For the sake of creating art, Fletcher is willing to destroy people. In his world, the human is subsumed in sacrifice to the life of art. It is a greater crime to deprive the world of real art than to deprive it of a real person.

Why does Fletcher think this is his duty? The viewer learns little about him, except for a hint that he is estranged from his wife and daughter. Even without this estrangement, it’s not hard to imagine how art could overtake his worldview. Beauty’s power, sensibly more immediate than truth or goodness, charms the susceptible heart.

This heart can easily go astray. Beauty can soothe the savage breast or incite a new one. Art away from its human context won’t destroy people. But if people accept contextless art, they can destroy themselves with it.

This is, at least by my lights, what continues happening to Andrew. What is Whiplash‘s position on the problem of art and human life? Despite director Damien Chazelle’s remarks that the movie is a condemnation of abusive art training, Whiplash seems at best ambivalent about the apparent conflict:

Fletcher is fired from Shaffer for abuse, in part because of a report by Andrew’s father. In the scene where Fletcher explains his philosophy he also tricks Andrew into joining a new band for a major 356140951gig. It’s a retaliatory setup. He gives Andrew the wrong music so Andrew can make a fool of himself in front of New York. Andrew doesn’t take this quietly, but turns it into an opportunity to show up Fletcher. He interrupts his conductor and begins a solo.

Fletcher in turn doesn’t take this lightly, but begins to play Andrew’s game. Fletcher approaches the drum set and uses his prowess, knowledge, and psychological power over Andrew to elicit a remarkable solo, giving Andrew specific verbal and physical cues about how to perform. The result is exhilarating.

The screen blacks at the end of the solo. As at the beginning, the lights are focused on Andrew. But in the last shot, he’s now soaked in brilliant stage light and applauded by all the New Yorkers whose opinions matter. The light radiates on him. It’s glory. But it’s sickening glory, won only because Fletcher used his power to wrench greatness from Andrew. The film doesn’t seem to mind that cost.

whip-6

The soundtrack — crisp, blazing, big band jazz — is one of Whiplash’s major highlights. Hours and years of hard practice produced that skill musicianship. In light of the movie’s questions, this music should make us wonder. A great soundtrack. At what cost?

And the Nominees Are. . . The Theory of Everything

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Every year, similarities among the Best Picture nominees seem to emerge. This year, no less than HALF of the nominated films are biopics: Selma, American Sniper, The Imitation Game, and The Theory of Everything. Reviewing a biopic poses an interesting challenge—the temptation arises to review the person and not the film. In the case of The Theory of Everything, a biopic portraying the life of world-famous physicist Stephen Hawking, this temptation becomes all the more significant, given the project of this series to review these films through a theological lens.

As a theological subject, Stephen Hawking is, shall we say, problematic. In an interview following the release of his most recent book, The Grand Design (2010), he stated that, while “science can’t prove that God doesn’t exist,” it does “[make] God unnecessary.” While Hawking’s atheism is not the central subject of The Theory of Everything, within the film’s context, it serves as the undercurrent that carries him through his initial research, and it grows stronger as his career progresses. Hawking’s belief that there is no God, no eternal horizon beyond the temporal universe, fuels his search for the one elegant theory that will explain absolutely everything in the known world. If there is no God, if everything is just physics, then everything can be known, and Hawking is determined to “know everything.” The seeming boundlessness of such a pursuit—the desire to know everything—is in reality a limited vision that does not allow for mystery. Such a vision enables a person to marvel at the created world, but not to stand in wonder before it as a great mystery unto itself. Such a vision enables a person to look at the stars and the planets with a penetrating gaze and see into the heart of their movements and mechanics, but not to gaze lovingly into the soul of another human person and see the mystery that resides within them. Again, Hawking’s atheism only comes to the surface in key moments of the film, but it is always operative in the background, filtering his every experience and interaction. Nowhere is this more readily apparent than in his relationship with his wife, Jane, and it is this relationship that provides the central subject of the film. We see in these two people two distinct ways of seeing which inform the way they each encounter the world, one another, and all of the challenges that confront them as a result of Stephen’s illness. Stephen’s vision is informed by that which he can empirically know and grasp; Jane’s vision is informed by that which she believes, knows to be true as a person of faith.

From their awkwardly endearing first meeting (Stephen: “Science?” Jane: “Arts.”), it is clear that Stephen and Jane have about as much compatibility as oil and water. Stephen immediately identifies himself as an “intelligent atheist,” and Jane reveals that she belongs to the “C. of E. — Church of England.” As they get to know one another, Stephen first views Jane’s religious beliefs not with disdain but with bemusement; later on, there is a moment where he is visibly moved by her deeply-rooted faith when she recites the beginning of the book of Genesis as they stare up at a brilliantly starry sky. Despite their differences, a mutual fascination grows into a deep love: Jane is in awe of Stephen’s view of the natural, scientific world, and Stephen is drawn to Jane’s wide-eyed joy, her thirst for life.

It is Jane’s thirst for life and her unbounded love for Stephen that sustains him when he receives a devastating diagnosis of motor-neuron (Lou Gehrig’s) disease. Confronted with a mystery he cannot explain away, a disease that has no treatment or cure, Stephen withdraws into a deep depression, and initially pushes Jane away. Even his father tries to get her to move on. Undeterred, Jane replies as resolve wells up within her, “I know—I know what you must all think. That I don’t look like a terribly strong person. But I love him. And he loves me.” Heedless of the doctor’s two-year prognosis and undaunted by the Hawking family’s defeatism, Jane is carried along by the undercurrent of the mysterious love for Stephen that has grown within her heart, and she convinces him that the mystery of love is stronger than any incurable illness. Moved by this love to seize whatever time they have left together, the two wed, and Stephen soon surpasses the two-year prognosis. A child is born, and another, and a third. Stephen continues working, developing paradigm-shifting theories of black holes with enormous implications for the scientific community’s understanding of spacetime. Yet, while his mind remains sharp as ever, his body begins to betray him as his illness progresses. First he must use one walking stick. Then two. Then he reluctantly gives in to the inevitable wheelchair. His speech devolves from a crisp British lilt to the slur of someone who has had too much to drink, until only those who know him well can interpret his words for others. Eventually, an emergency tracheotomy renders Stephen voiceless—trapped inside his own body—with only a letter-filled board to allow him to communicate with others, one painstaking letter at a time. Although Stephen is later able to “speak” with the assistance of a computer program, it’s not his voice. It’s not even a British voice, as Jane disappointedly observes upon first hearing it, “It’s American! . . . Are there any other voices?” (Because if Love, Actually taught us anything, it’s that most British accents > all American accents.)

Throughout this deterioration, Stephen’s body appears to collapse inward on itself, like a dying star. Yet the love of his wife, family, and friends, and his insatiable desire to know prevent him from disappearing completely into the proverbial black hole of despair. For Jane, however, Stephen’s atheism—particularly its growing prominence in his research—becomes a greater source of unspoken tension between them, and although she finds solace in her faith, Jane is human nevertheless, struggling with the daily demands of caring for her immobile husband and their all-too-mobile children. She finds help and support in Jonathan, her church choir director, and although their friendship begins as platonic, a deep intimacy grows between them, and they eventually have an affair. Jane’s fidelity to her faith manifests itself in her decision to stay with Stephen and end her relationship with Jonathan. Jane suffers a great deal as a result of this decision; without Jonathan, her life seems lonelier than ever, and her relationship with Stephen seems to become more strained with each passing day.

The tension grows yet more with the arrival of Elaine Mason, Stephen’s new nurse, with whom he shares a budding emotional connection. As Jane looks with sadness and resentment on at the growing intimacy between her husband and his nurse, it looks as though she, too, might collapse inward on herself from the weight of her physical and emotional burdens; after all, she has been caring for Stephen for nearly twenty years. Yet, even in the midst of these complications, it is clear that Jane’s faith continues to inform her approach to the daily duties of life, as evidenced by a key scene toward the end of the film. Jane discovers a draft of Stephen’s seminal work, A Brief History of Time, in which he states that the discovery of humanity’s identity and reason for being would be the “ultimate triumph of human reason, for then we would know the mind of God.” She initially mistakes this as Stephen “acknowledging” God, and in that brief moment—when she believes that she and her husband might finally see the world with a vision informed by faith—she is happier than she has been for quite some time. The moment fades when Stephen reveals that he has not had an actual change of heart as far as God is concerned, but he has had one as far as Jane herself is concerned. As Stephen announces his plan to travel to America with Elaine Mason to receive an award, Jane’s fleeting happiness proves to be but the residual brilliance of the explosion caused by the death of their marriage, which is finally collapsing in on itself.

By the end of this visually lovely, exquisitely acted, yet poignantly sad film, it seems as though the complexities of quantum theory, thermodynamics, and relativity are nothing compared to the complexities of human relationships. On the one hand, Stephen’s leaving Jane could be interpreted as a selfless action on his part—he frees her from having to continue to care for him and even opens up the possibility that she herself will find love elsewhere (ultimately, she reunited with Jonathan and the two eventually married). On the other hand, Stephen’s actions may have been motivated by the same wonderless search for answers that characterized his quest to “know everything” by discovering the one equation to rule them all.

Yet, Hawking’s quest to explain the cosmos and his insistence that this can be done on the basis of scientific reason, through “human endeavor” alone, leaves no room for mystery, and it is mystery that lies at the heart of every human person and (though Hawking would argue otherwise) at the heart of the universe. Indeed, it is this search for a theory which, for Hawking, necessitates putting the possibility of a Creator God on the shelf in favor of a completely rational approach, that renders him incapable of seeing the truth: that the one theory isn’t a theory at all, but a reality, and that this reality isn’t expressed in an equation, but in a communion of Persons—a relationship of love.

And the Nominees Are. . . American Sniper

Leonard DeLorenzoLeonard DeLorenzo, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Vision

Contact Author

 

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

I once took a values inventory that included a particularly strange and disturbing question: ‘Which would you least like to be: a hangman, a member of a firing squad, or the person who pulls the switch for the electric chair?’ The general consensus among the other members of the workshop was that being a hangman was least desirable of all, followed by the electric chair operator and then the member of the firing squad. The prevalent rationale was that “should I be forced to take another person’s life, I want to be as distant from the action as possible and least directly responsible for it.” For my part, I reversed the order, and for precisely the converse reasons: “should I have take someone’s life, I should be as close as possible so it hurts me as much as possible to do it.”

I had this in mind as I was preparing to view American Sniper. I anticipated being able to analyze Chris Kyle, his story, and the film itself with the same ‘smart’ criterion. Midway through, however, I discovered a chiasmic element in the sniper’s relationship to the death of another. maxresdefault-3While the sniper’s scope allowed Kyle (and thus the viewer) to negate distance as he pulled the target intimately close, the intimate surroundings of the target himself are negated as he is locked into the gaze of this distant other. In other words, the sniper maintains distance as he draws the target close. On at least 160 occasions, it was a bullet that broke this tension for Chris Kyle. Recognizing this was enough to make me see that the inventory response I once espoused belied a primary concern for what intimately affected me, which only by extension concerned the intimate space of the (hypothetical) other. In my eye, I held the intimacy of the other in a distant gaze.

It is rather easy to distance oneself from Chris Kyle as portrayed in this film. For some, he is “Legend” who stands as the nearly sacred paragon of duty, valor, and patriotism. For others, he is more like the “macho sludge” of perverse heroism or the icon of neo-conservative principles. Despite one’s judgment on this spectrum, I assume that most everyone can agree that Chris Kyle is a tragic hero. For many, he is the hero who met a tragic end while continuing his service on the home front. For all those and more, it is tragic that this kind of hero would ever have to exist: one whose “legend” grows with each life taken, even though he apparently only ever counted the lives he could have saved but didn’t. In this sense, American Sniper is a tragedy from start to finish: it is tragic that there was—or was deemed to be—cause for war in Iraq; it is tragic that the duty of “overwatch” was necessary in case of ambush; it is tragic that insurgents had cause to fight; it is tragic that civilians were caught in the crossfire; it is tragic that violence like this exists at all. Most of all, it is a tragedy because it operates on the presumption that war is inevitable—that the wolves always lurk in the darkness and the sheepdog’s heroism is predicated upon this threat. What the attention to the complex paradoxical relationship between distance and intimacy in this film allows, however, is for the consideration of how what happens in and around the distant figure of Kyle is relevant to how remoteness roots out intimacy for anyone.

Part of the film’s message, of course, is that Chris Kyle wasn’t just “anyone”. He was a “sheepdog”—among the most exalted and successful of his kind in American military history. In a scene that provides an essential plot clue early on in the film, Kyle’s father lectures his two young boys—with their silent and fearful mother looking on—about how the world is filled with wolves who seek out the meek and timid sheep among us. It is the sheepdog that protects the weak. In the Kyle household, only sheepdogs are bred. Even without the glancing shot of the Bible on the neighboring credenza, the biblical imagery employed in this scene is obvious. Except now it is not, as we might have expected, the shepherd who cares for the sheep both near and far, but rather the sheepdog who patrols the darkness outside the fold to eliminate the threat of wolves. This isn’t a simple scenario Kyle’s father is describing: this is a vision of the world as such. It is this vision that Chris Kyle himself assumes and one in which his role not only makes sense, but is necessary, honorable, and even vocational. He is the guardian on the outskirts.

The re-narration of the world—what in properly religious terms we would call “creation”—continues throughout the film. There are key signals of this re-interpretation of what otherwise appears as “conventional” time and space whereby the distant chaos of the Iraqi front dispels the intimacies and comforts of home. Kyle hears—and we along with him—the torturous murder of a child in the sound of an auto-mechanic’s drill, while the barrage of gunfire in narrow streets echoes through the accelerating roar of a civilian motorcycle. What is most obviously ‘not there’ in the manicured veneer of modern American life is seen and heard through the sniper who remains within the war waged elsewhere.

During the homecomings between Kyle’s four tours of duty, his wife is a counter-symbol to Kyle himself. American-Sniper-photoWhile she wants to draw close to him and share in his intimate life, wrapped up howsoever it may be in the thrall of war, he keeps his own intimacy distant from her as he continues to see home through the scope of war abroad. “Even when you’re here you’re not here,” he wife cries. She sees him in his absence, and it is in his absence from where he is when he’s at home that he keeps his eye on the sheep the wolves circle. “It’s not about them,” she pleads, “it’s about us. You have to make it back to us.” The distance is too great; the eye of his heart is elsewhere.

Commentary such is this is embedded within the film itself. In is in the words of his less steely fellow SEAL (everyone is less steely than Kyle in this film) when he attests that war “puts lightning in your bones and makes it hard to hold on to anything else.” While his friend bemoans the difficulty in holding on to other things in war, Kyle embodies the belief that holding on to anything else is beside the point. For Kyle, the thing to hold on to is only the mission itself, the sacred duty of protecting your brother in war, of eliminating the threat, of getting the job done. In his terse eulogy for his friend in the car ride back from his burial, he blurts out in frustration to his wife: “He let go and he paid the price for it!” This eruption discloses the clarity with which he approaches the “War on Terror”, his responsibility for returning again and again to the fray, and taking the shot when the target is in his scope.

When he returns home for good, the deafening roars of war again hold him spellbound, this time in his own living-room as he gazes at a blank television screen. The noise is there even when the action is far away. The elegance of the cinematography that afforded such a penetrating look at the grit, fury, and utter haphazardness of unsecured Iraqi streets leaves you, as the viewer, not unlike Kyle when the shooting stops. Here is the catatonia of overwhelmed and exhausted senses.

The remarkable thing that the film wants to present to us is how Kyle himself made the journey from the intentionally distant sniper pursuing his sheepdog mission, to the intimate friend and healer who pursues this same mission in a new way with wounded veterans. The sheepdog, it seems, has come into the fold to care for the others. This one whose distance allowed him to see what the soldiers in the streets could not see is now the one who heals those same soldiers by letting them see him up close. When, in the end, he is presented to us as the sheepdog who—not unlike the good shepherd—lays down his life while caring for his sheep, we might be tempted to consider his death redemptive in the sense that his life is given in service of his mission. We might be tempted to think this but for the final tragic irony of Chris Kyle’s story: that the last sheep to whom he allows himself to draw close is the one who does not see him up close, but sees him rather through a mind warped by those unsecured streets halfway around the world. In a scene we do not see and in a wounded mind of a veteran we glimpse but do not meet, the hellfire of Iraq holds the intimacy of Chris Kyle in its scope and releases a bullet to break the tension.

And the Nominees Are. . . Birdman, or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Carolyn Pirtle, M.M., M.S.M.

Assistant Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

When I first heard about Oscar-nominated director Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s film Birdman, I was struck by a number of things. First, the plot seemed to be a not-so-subtle case of art imitating life: Riggan Thomson, a once-great film star famous for his portrayal of a superhero in a comic book franchise, struggles to mount a comeback and reinvent himself as a legitimate actor. Portraying Thomson was none other than the big screen’s original Batman, Michael Keaton, who hasn’t been seen in a major studio release since 2005’s Herbie Fully Loaded (though he has been heard in Pixar’s Cars franchise and Toy Story 3). Can we all say “meta”? For his part, Iñárritu, who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated original screenplay, lent credence to this art-life parallel when he stated in an interview, “When I finished the script, I knew that Michael was not the choice or option, he was the guy.” On the other hand, and perhaps not surprisingly, Keaton on his part was skeptical of Birdman (I mean, it even sounds like Batman), asking Iñárritu at their first meeting, “Are you trying to make fun of me?” Contrary to popular perception, Iñárritu insists that Birdman is actually a commentary on his own struggles with self-doubt as a filmmaker. It is also an interesting commentary on ambition and ego. Which brings me to the second thing that struck me about this film: its subtitle.

Though this film is often referred to simply as Birdman, its full title is Birdman or, (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). We’ve all heard the cliché “Ignorance is bliss,” but I wondered what case the film would make for the ways in which ignorance could actually be considered a virtue. As it happens, the case was relatively simple. The subtitle comes into play at the film’s conclusion as the headline for a New York Times review of Riggan’s comeback project: a Broadway production of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” adapted by, directed by, and starring Riggan himself. Tabitha Dickinson (Lindsay Duncan), the review’s notoriously malicious author, previously promised Riggan that she would crush his dream of a comeback and “destroy [his] play” as a “propaganda piece” put on by a has-been celebrity (not an actor) who is “entitled, spoiled, selfish, . . . blissfully untrained, unversed, and unprepared to even attempt real art.” To her surprise (and no doubt chagrin), Dickinson must eat these words, finding herself moved by Riggan’s artistic commitment, writing in her review, “Thomson has unwittingly given birth to a new form that can only be described as supra-realism. Blood was spilled both literally and metaphorically by artist and audience alike. Red blood. The blood that has been sorely missing from the veins of American theatre. . . .” Dickinson, who had previously used Riggan’s lack of training—his ignorance—as ammunition in her vitriol against him, now views it as the very source of his genius. Ironically, Dickinson’s review itself was written in ignorance: what she understood to be brilliant artistic commitment (Riggan shoots himself onstage) was in truth the last act of a desperate man, as he had actually intended to commit suicide. What appears as virtuous ignorance that results in unwitting success is actually a deep despair caused by ignorance of another kind—ignorance of “what we talk about when we talk about love.” Riggan’s artistic ignorance results in theatrical choices that are unintentionally great, that succeed in spite of him. Yet his emotional ignorance nearly destroys him.

In reality, Riggan is ignorant of the things that truly matter. He is motivated solely by ambition—the desire for fame, critical praise, and most of all relevance, no matter what their cost may be to himself or those closest to him. In the first moments of the film, this flawed logic is encapsulated by an epigraph from the writings of Raymond Carver: “And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so? I did.
And what did you want?
 To call myself beloved, to feel myself
 beloved on the earth.” Riggan’s hero’s quest—to feel himself beloved—is fed by his interior dialogue with Birdman, his ego and shadow self. Yet this hero’s quest is revealed to be a fool’s errand as Riggan continuously seeks love, not from the friends and family who know him as he truly is, but from the anonymous masses who are ignorant of his true identity, recognizing him only in the role he once played.

Riggan’s friends and family attempt to draw him out of this ignorant state: his lawyer and best friend (ably played by Zach Galifianakis) laments, “You’re confusing love with admiration.” His sharp-tongued daughter and assistant Sam (Oscar nominee Emma Stone) tries to break through his misguided desire to “mean something” with forceful clarity, telling him in a scathing monologue: “. . .there’s a whole world out there where people fight to be relevant every day. And you act like it doesn’t even exist! . . . I mean who are you? . . . You’re the one who doesn’t exist. You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.” Sam tries to get her father to see the futility of chasing critical approval when people’s attention spans are governed by twitter and society is constantly searching for the next viral sensation, the next big thing. Unfortunately, her attempt to pierce through his delusions of grandeur are unsuccessful, and Riggan, hiding behind the mask of his fragile ego, soars on Birdman’s wings of unbridled ambition, chasing after relevance at any cost as he soars ever more closely toward the sun.

Ultimately, this pursuit nearly costs Riggan his life, but in the aftermath of his “ignorant” actions onstage, he does indeed discover himself beloved—by ex-wife, by daughter, by best friend, and yes, even by the critics and the masses who have lavished their approval upon him by glowing reviews, candlelight vigils, viral videos, and retweets galore. But in the waning moments of the film, we see that even this will not suffice, that Riggan will strive to soar still higher. Like Icarus, the original Birdman, there can really be only one way for Riggan’s story to end. But for the fleeting present, ignorance really is bliss.

And the Nominees Are. . . The Grand Budapest Hotel

Timothy P. O’Malley, Ph.D.

Director, Notre Dame Center for Liturgy

Contact Author

 

Editors’ Note:
In anticipation of the 87th Academy Awards on February 22,
we present a series exploring the philosophical and theological elements in each of the eight films nominated for Best Picture.
(Caveat: spoilers ahead.)

Saving Whimsy: Wes Anderson and The Grand Budapest Hotel

Though, it is trite to say, Wes Anderson movies have a look, I suppose those capable of analyzing film would say the same thing about movies directed by Steven Spielberg, Kathryn Bigelow, or Michael Bay. But to novice eyes (I tend to see one movie a year), I cannot recognize such visual clues with ease. In the case of Wes Anderson, it is different. We know we have encountered a Wes Anderson movie when we find ourselves immersed in a consistent (often bright) palette of colors. An almost storybook feel to a narrative where the idiosyncratic is normative. Even when dealing with serious subject matter (delayed adolescence and the loss of meaning and any theme taken up by Bill Murray), we might best describe his work as whimsical, a kind of escape from the mundaneness of our own lives. An Anderson work invites us into another reality, a grammar very distinct from our own.

Indeed, not all are so laudatory of this style. In a piece in GQ (Why Do We Hate to Love Wes Anderson?), Jeremy Gordon writes:

When the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel was released…there was a wry, winking reception to the news. Most websites were adulatory—Slate called it “delightful”—but plenty telegraphed their reaction to the announcement. This was Wes Anderson “at his most precious,” wrote the Verge; the trailer was “so deeply Wes Anderson,” wrote PolicyMicPaste chronicled “the most Wes Anderson-iest moments” from the trailer. AdWeek was a little blunter, writing that the trailer “captures what’s great and what’s grating about Wes Anderson.”

The subtext was clear: Yet another Wes Anderson movie, and any moviegoer with a half a brain could intuit what that entailed: droll one-liners that always land somewhere between sarcasm and sadness, final scenes shot in slow motion, liberally used ’60s songs, immaculate fonts, beautifully designed sets, daddy issues, white people, thematic resolutions that essentially boil down to “and then he stopped being a dick about it.”

Other critics have been more direct. A Wes Anderson film is one without point, a meaningless exercise in the art of signification. That a Wes Anderson film is nominated for an Oscar is, in this regard, remarkable. Best Picture nominees are rarely described as whimsical but are very often visually sparse, emotionally draining, and icons of social commentary. You may walk out moved, changed, or transformed. But do you enjoy them? Does it provoke a smile?

Of course, those of who have seen The Grand Budapest Hotel know that this whimsicality is brought into direct tension with less pleasant themes. The world that Wes Anderson creates is interrupted by the reality of violence, of death, and the limitations of time. At the conclusion of the film when death intervenes through the fictional fascist regime, the plague of illness and war alike, Anderson rips us out of the comfortable universe that he has created. The darkness that has been just below the surface the entire film, the sense that the protagonists might escape unharmed, is undone in a minute and a half.

And the film (already a kind of a story within a story) zooms out at the very end to reveal that though guided by a narrator listening to a story at the now run-down hotel, we are actually immersed in the reading of a novel. As Salon noted, reviewing the film:

We only arrive at the Grand Budapest of Monsieur Gustave, after passing through multiple layers of time and subjectivity, narrators and mediums — a teenage girl in the present day reading a novel, the novel’s author talking into a camera about the process of writing his book in the 1980s, a younger version of said author meeting an aged Zero in the decrepit, Soviet-era Grand Budapest. Thus the bright world of our farcical adventure has not been lost to time, but rather, created by lost time, through a chain of nostalgic yearning and imagination.

Of course, the Salon reviewer is correct. The conclusion of the film elicits in the viewer a kind of sadness, a longing for a world that has passed. But perhaps, it is incorrect to call it “nostalgic yearning.” Perhaps what Anderson is really doing in all his films, is showing us a reality that is far more enchanted than we realize. There is a glorious mystery to ordinary existence, a beauty that gives itself to us around every corner. Yet what is almost salvific about The Grand Budapest Hotel is that Anderson does not let us pass too quickly over the darkness. It is not a Pollyannaish whimsy. The darkness of history intervenes but even it cannot entirely stifle this vision. Stories continue to be told, inviting us to re-imagine our world once again, to see colors even where there is only gray.

Wes Anderson, of course, is not a theologian. But he does capture something real about the inadequacy of a gray, modern existence. The critics who mock his love of color, of joviality, of eccentricity have become deaf to the mystery of the ordinary. They want to live in the world of gray, where only really serious things are addressed. The Grand Budapest Hotel functions as a rejoinder to those critics of Anderson who fault him for what they see as a capricious style.

Yet, there is something more to Anderson’s “nostalgia.” The Grand Budapest Hotel is an homage to the power of memory to interrupt and transfigure even the grayest of spaces. It testifies to the fact that the march of history cannot destroy quirkiness, playfulness, festivity itself. Reflecting on a similar theme in a meditation on New Year’s Eve, then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger writes:

Chronos is a cruel god, now as in the past. Just think of all the things that those who worship the modern as the good have had to adore and then, a short time later, cast into the fire! Only the oblivion that Chronos bestows on his worshippers prevents them from seeing through his cruel game with all its contradictions. How cruel a game it really is becomes clear to anyone who turns the pages of twentieth century history and sees all that men [and women] have done to themselves in the name of modernity. When time becomes master of man, man becomes a slave, even if Chronos makes his appearance under the alias of Progress or the Future.

In this regard, though God is seemingly absent from The Grand Budapest Hotel, the festive memory of time past is not. A time that penetrates the present, revealing to us that not all must be gray. That the seriousness of history does not demand a lachrymose posture, avoiding whimsy out of a false sense of sophistication. In telling the kind of stories that Anderson does, he demonstrates to us that Chronos, in the end, will not win the day. That the grayness of modern life can be defeated not only through the appearance of Bill Murray (an effective weapon against the reductions of the modern world) but the interrupting joy of the festive, of that which pleases. To remember this is not mere nostalgia. It is hope.