Two Days And One Night

Who knows what the original title of “Deux jours, une nuit” means, but this morning I watched Two Days and One Night and it was the best possible use of a Thursday before lunchtime that I can think of.

It tells the story of Sandra, who is recovering from depression, and one Friday evening gets a phone call from her friend at work explaining she is about to be laid off. The boss put a proposition to the staff. They can either get their annual bonuses, or Sandra can stay. All but two of the sixteen factory floor workers vote to lay Sandra off and to get their €1000.

What follows is very simple. After her friend Juliette convinces the boss to run a secret ballot after the weekend, the film consists of the Dardenne brothers’ camera following Sandra – played with astounding brilliance by Marion Cotillard – as she wrestles with herself to go and plead with her colleagues to vote for her and against their bonus.

Marion Cotillard as Sandra

There wasn’t a moment where I felt bored and at the end of it I realised it was as compelling and clear a picture of the plight of the worker as I can remember seeing in my time. The film isn’t an uplifting story about the triumph of the human spirit. It isn’t a sentimental escape from the material problems that vex our cities. It is a profoundly humanistic depiction of the forces that pull and stretch and toss the people who are just wrestling to put food on the dinner table and get their kids through school.

Our jokes about first world problems are certainly hackneyed, but they might be callous too.

There is a scene where Sandra goes to see her colleague Hichim. The electricity is gone in the apartment building. She walks the stairs, flight after flight, the picture of exhausted dejection, climbing to reach a peak where she does not know if she will be welcome, in the dark now and facing future darkness. It is a simple 30 seconds of camera-work, but it is a better description of the economic world most people in the EU live in than anything I’ve ever encountered from a politician. She climbs because if she doesn’t climb, she’ll lose her house; but even climbing, she might still lose her house. She climbs to secure the basic dignity of having a job and a role and a thing to do, but to do it, she must humiliate herself by throwing herself on the mercy of people as taxed and strained as she is.

Here are three very brief thoughts by which I hope to convince you to go watch this before it leaves the cinema or to load it up on Netflix or whatever it is that people who don’t use torrents use.

1) The boss is always above the fray. Literally, in the final scene, his pristine and spacious office is on the first floor. He never gets dirtied by the fight that is the lives of these workers.

2) The workers are distant from the place they work. Sandra has to take a bus all over the city. Her husband drives her up hills and out into the countryside, she visits suburbs and flats in slums. The task of making money to get by dislocates the workers from their physical environment.

3) The world that the worker is forced to live in is agonistic. It is a battle. Many of the colleagues phrase the ballot in terms of “losing their bonus”. They have been convinced this world is one of scarcity and therefore it becomes one of desperate scarcity. Worker tears away at worker, the son lashes out at the father, the world is so shaped by capitalism and globalisation that we sacrifice our colleagues for a little more comfort.

If I say that Two Days One Night is a 90 minute illustration of Marx’s theory of alienation you might yawn and decide that sounds too lofty, or too earnest, or too damn boring to squander an evening on. It is not. Sandra, in her depression, laments that she does not even exist. Marx told us that the alienated worker:

only feels himself freely active in his animal functions – eating, drinking, procreating, or at most in his dwelling and in dressing-up, etc.; and in his human functions he no longer feels himself to be anything but an animal. What is animal becomes human and what is human becomes animal.

Capitalism dehumanises us. This film is a portrait of that process that manages to be fully and totally human. It is splendid.

Your Correspondent, At the end Sandra reminded him of a bird singing

Some Thoughts On Movies I Recently Saw

I presume someone has already made a parody of Room 237 where a bunch of film critics talk over the footage offering far-fetched theories about why Rodney Ascher put this together in the first place?

Byzantium continues to prove that Saoirse Ronan is fecking deadly, even if it is one of those Neil Jordan movies that leaves you surprised he made it.

Here’s how dumb I am. I was dumb enough to be surprised at just how dumb Lucy was. I mean, I expected a dumbfest, considering the “humans only use 10% of their brain mumbo jumbo”, but the godlike powers that accrued to Scarlet’s character was quite spectacularly stupider than anything I could have dared to hope for. The best blockbuster of the summer was Edge of Tomorrow, but this was almost as satisfying in its gun-toting momentum.

If a movie about tornado hunters doesn’t feature lots of people shouting “Hold on! Just hold on!” then the damn scriptwriters don’t know what they are doing. No fear of that with Into The Storm, a film so formulaic that the scriptwriters know exactly what they are doing because they have hunted the films that have gone before and delivered exactly what the audience wants: a film with strong winds.

The Congress stars Robin Wright as Robin Wright, a beautiful actress with an ambivalent relationship to acting and a tendency to make ill advised career moves. Surprisingly, her performance is superb. You’d think playing yourself is easy, but Wright is amazing in how she occupies that role so fully that you forget that she is playing herself. Made by the guy behind Waltz With Bashir, this is a fascinating set up: movie studios are digitally sampling their actors and then forcing them into retirement. Films will be stitched together by computer artists in the future from the stock footage accumulated from just a few hours capturing the movie stars of today. In the first half of the film, things are brilliant and compelling and philosophically interesting. In the second half of the film, things get more animated. Literally. And the momentum of the plot, the clarity of ideas and the enjoyment of the viewer suffers. It goes on too long and gets confused within itself. Wife-unit and I can’t put the plot together in such a way that it isn’t incoherent, but it’s one of those films where maybe we just weren’t smart enough to piece it together. When films mistake themselves for brain teasers, something is amiss. The animation is technically marvelous, but the narrative doesn’t drive it forward, so it is just impressive drawing. A failed masterpiece or a glorious crapfest – we couldn’t decide which but it is definitely worth watching.

Finally, This is Martin Bonner is a unique, flash of a film. It is sort of the opposite to The Congress. It is short and thematically sparse and so simple you would be mistaken for thinking there was no plot. As this review in The Other Journal (one of the single, finest pieces of film writing I’ve ever read) helpfully puts it, it is a film about sight and investment. It centres on two people: an older man starting a job with a Christian charity that help re-integrate ex-offenders into society and a middle-aged man who is coming out of prison after a 12 year sentence. It is a deep, quiet, humble film. There is no elaboration in the cinematography or inter-trans-textuality in the script. It is a mundane story about real people, compellingly told. Of all the movies I’ve seen since Sunday, this is the best.

Also, the lead actor can play Karl Barth in the Avengers’ style comic book movie I am writing about the great theologians (Peter Capaldi as Calvin and Meryl Streep as Catherine of Siena), cos he’s the spit of him, as we’d say in Dublin.

Your Correspondent, He’s smart, he’s sensitive, he’s clearly not obsessed with his physical appearance…

Wolf Of Wall Street Review

The cult of capitalism will die this way; first as comedy and then as farce. But it will feel like it takes forever.

It is not even close to the greatest Scorcese has done but that makes this obscene, stylish and finely acted film something that could be damn impressive in the long-term.

Like, even longer than the never-ending running time.

Your Correspondent, You buy until you die.

Best Films I Saw In 2013

There are certain fancypants film reviewers who tell you that 2013 was a vintage year for the cinema. I haven’t seen Her, The Act of Killing, 12 Years a Slave or Pain and Gain so maybe I am judging too fast. But there were many weeks my Cineworld megapass card stayed firmly in my wallet because all there was to watch was yet more crappy horror movies or tedious childrens’ cartoons. But there were a handful of fantastic films that continue to linger with me.

The Way Way Back
This is probably the movie that Wife-unit and I enjoyed the most during the year. It has everything you want in a summer movie, except giant robots who fight in the sea. Sam Rockwell’s performance is effortlessly brilliant as ever. The supporting cast is stellar. And the fundamental story is true and funny and heart-warming. I wrote about it earlier here.

Gravity
This is the most Oscar-worthy film I saw this year. I already rambled extensively about it here, but for me this isn’t about special effects and action, although it is gloriously tense. Continuing on from Children of Men, the director Alfonso Cuarón has produced a profound spiritual reflection. This time, the film is about prayer. Or at least, that’s what I’m saying.

Gravity

Mud
Mud is another film about multi-generational friendship between men. But this is much darker. Much more like Stand By Me than the Station Agent. It is a story about a boat caught up in some trees and a man who wants to make it up with the lady he loves. The best ones are always straightforward, right?

Elefante Blanco
To remind you that I am a real life intellectual poser, here is a subtitled film about priests trying to make a difference. The priests are really good friends; maybe there is a theme developing here? Here is more extensive waffle on the topic.

To The Wonder
So on top of being an intellectual poser, I’m a pretentious wanker too because while everyone else thought this was an extended perfume commercial, I was convinced that it was a profound reflection on ministry, doubt, faith and love, as well was being proof that I was right all along by telling you all that Rachel McAdams is a brilliant actress. You probably will hate it, but I could re-watch it constantly. Here’s more pretentious buffoonery on the topic.

Other movies that were really good include Nebraska, Saving Mr. Banks, Captain Philips, Les Miserables, Star Trek Into Darkness, Blackfish, Rush, and perhaps most especially, Hunger Games: Catching Fire.

Your Correspondent, Has got kind of a big personality, with his flashy clothes and his Woody Allen swagger.

Gravity Is A Film About Prayer

There are many spoilers in this piece. If you want to skip it, here’s a link to the most recent entry on this blog and here’s a relevant video. Now vamoosh!

Gravity

My Main Claim

Gravity is fundamentally a movie about prayer.

What it postulates is to be human is to pray.

We see this most clearly in the film’s final word of dialogue, where Sandra Bullock has managed to somehow escape the clutches of the vast abyss of airless space and lands in a lake of water, almost drowns, and finally manages to crawl on to the sand of the beach in an unknown location (Isle of Skye maybe?) on the planet she calls home. Her words are, to nobody, to everybody, to God: “Thank you.”

To understand this, we have to go back to the decisive scene where the plot hinges.

There we find Sandra Bullock’s character giving up the will to live. She is lost in space. She thinks she finally has located a radio frequency that will put her in touch with Chinese astronauts. In fact, all she has achieved is to contact an amateur AM radio enthusiast somewhere inside the Arctic Circle. He believes her name is “Mayday”. He has absolutely no English. They have no means to communicate with each other.

In the background she can hear his dogs barking and howling. This sound, this creaturely sound of home evokes a profound emotional reaction in Dr. Ryan Stone. She longs to hear the dogs bark again. Then she mimics her radio operating friend, in his mimicking of a wolf’s cry. She is lost from her pack, her tribe, her clan, her species, her home. It is a picture of what it means to be a human being. We are somewhere between the other animals who are creatures – wolves, dogs – and God the Creator.

Dr. Stone floats in this unimaginably simple and yet complex space. In this, she is representing all humans, even as she is separated from them so profoundly that she cries for her “pack”, certain she’ll never be reunited with them again.

Why I Think My Claim Is Right
We found out earlier in the film that her daughter died at the age of four. In her soliloquy, overheard but uncomprehended by her AM radio friend, she speculates that they may be soon reunited. She will die. Nobody will mourn her. Nobody will pray for her soul. She can’t even pray for her own soul because nobody ever taught her.

“Nobody ever taught me how to pray.” she says. And tears fall from her eyes and float out into her capsule’s cabin.

And right at this moment she hears across the radio, the sounds of a baby crying in a shack in northern Mongolia or Alaska.

If Christianity is true, then the most basic cry of humans is the cry of birth and that means that is a cry that God himself has made. Jesus’ first prayer was his birth cry.

If Jesus is God, then even the wailing of a child is sacred.

If the Kingdom of God has come amongst us, a teardrop can be a more potent prayer than all the words of priests, sages and gurus.

Is It That Simple?

Not really, no.

This scene is the narratival and theological heart of the film but what happens next complicates things.

She hallucinates the return of George Clooney’s character, Matt Kalowski, who sacrificed himself to give her an opportunity to live. In this vision, she is inspired with an idea that will ultimately lead to her salvation.

What began as a simple pious presentation on screen of the fundamental human truth that we long to cry out for home now gets much more complicated. This is an effects-driven, CGI-heavy space movie. I don’t want you to think I’m arguing this is some elaborate philosophical thesis projected in the local Cineworld. For that, we have to wait a while for the next Terence Malick film.

But this prayer, followed by hallucination of a miracle is, I think, a serious step into depth on behalf of the film-makers. Let me be so bold as to suggest that the father and son team who directed and wrote this film are doing something very subtle and interesting here. What we have is a dramatic depiction of situation that the Christian finds herself in after Feuerbach.

Bear with me and I’ll try to explain.

Feuerbach was a friend of Marx, a German intellectual in the middle 1800s who developed a vicious and penetrating critique of modern Christianity. He looked at the comfortable Lutheran church of his day and saw nothing but self satisfied contentment dressed up in supernatural mumbo-jumbo.

He said Christianity is a collective hallucination. In Christianity, society projects all its internal abilities and potential on to a figment character, a charismatic phantom, God.

Now think back to Gravity.

She hallucinates. She projects all her own internal abilities and potential on to this figment character, this charismatic phantom, Matt.

He doesn’t exist.

The director, Alfonso Cuarón, has taken us to the edge of a profound picture of prayer. But where does this picture take us? To a stress induced delusion. He has subverted the religious scene we have just witnessed and shown it all to be wish fulfillment.

He is unwilling to make a pious film about how a general religiosity binds us together in some comfortable sentimental ease. The arrival of George Clooney’s character is an answer to prayer that destroys the credibility of prayer. Cuarón knows Feuerbach. He knows that religious belief is now as much about religious doubt as faith. Nothing can be simple for us anymore, if it ever was. The “miracle” is a figment of her own self-conscious. Dr. Stone is in the quagmire of faith after Feuerbach and Darwin, Nietzsche and the wars of the 20th Century.

But that is not where Cuarón intends us to stay. He won’t leave us there. Perhaps the God that we are calling out to is nothing but a product of our sub-conscious.

Perhaps.

So Is It About Prayer, Or What?

Perhaps it is all a figment.

But, the vision tells the truth. From a psychologist’s perspective, Dr. Stone’s subjective experience has absolutely no referent. And yet it points towards the one thing that leads her home. And so Cuarón manages to undo Feuerbach and all the doubt and second guessing that Christians have inhabited since the 1840s by out-Feuerbach-ing Feuerbach.

Everything that Feuerbach says might be true of particular and general Christianities. It is wish fulfillment. It is corporate projection. That may well be true on the psychological level AND STILL God may be real. AND STILL, God intervenes.

The reason why that argument is sustained is that when she does finally make it to the Chinese space station, the Orthodox icon that sat above the dashboard of the Soyuz capsule is now replaced by a small dollar-store statue of a smiling Buddha. The different Feuerbachian expressions of religiosity that human culture has created may be referring to a shared human desire for the world to be charged with the grace of a supreme deity and yet nonetheless obtusely point us towards the gracious and supreme deity who is real.

Conclusion: Why I’m Sure I’m Right
Maybe I’m reading too much into this movie. I suspect that since we are dealing with the man who made Children of Men, that is not the case.

But here’s why I think my interpretation is in the right direction:

Dr. Stone is this titanic figure of human stamina and ingenuity. She refuses to give up. She yearns to live on. But when she finally arrives at her moment of salvation she issues this prayer of gratitude.

That “Thank you” reconfigures everything that has happened on the three different space-stations. It must be understood as a journey through Feuerbachian doubt and out the other end. It is at this point, at the creaturely point where the human is back on terra firma, that she stands up for the first time in the entire movie.

Remember how she stands after struggle? She has been lost in space, where life cannot exist. This experience has enfeebled her. She stumbles and then she stands. Her standing is pierced by weakness. This is a Christian anthropology, a reflection of the Imago-Dei. Human beings are lost in the complex and simple space between creature and Creator. Our lostness is experienced as alienation. Our suffering sighs are often our most eloquent prayers. But only when we understand ourselves as recipients of a gift, subjects of generosity, captive to gratitude, can we we ever hope to find land upon which to stand.

Of course, I’m also convinced because they made a companion piece shot from the perspective of the Inuit and with his talk of sacrifice and his depiction of human life in community even in the harshest of terrains, it sort of seals the deal.

Nobody can teach you how to pray. Prayer is the breath of God, returning whence it came.

Your Correspondent, He defies gravity.

Film Review: The Way Way Back

We can now declare that the three best films of the year deal with friendship between men. First there was the tragic Elefante Blanco. Then there was the haunting Mud. Now we have the simply charming The Way Way Back.

Sam Rockwell cements his place as the most under-rated actor going. Here he plays a character that manages a water park but also manages to be the greatest youth pastor in history, taking care of the troubled and lonely 14 year old Duncan.

That’s all you need to know. It is charming. It has Sam Rockwell. It is about a man who is a friend to a boy on the edge of manhood.

Also, while we’re at it, it has a terrifyingly convincing turn from Steve Carell and Allison Janney is even better than you are used to expecting from her. The plot is simple and uncontrived. The dialogue sparkles. It is a lovely film. Catch it in the cinema with friends before it leaves.

Your Correspondent, Wants to be a friend to all the 3s of the world.