Sunday, August 31, 2008
Off to the Movies
Before this past week, the last film I had seen in the theatre was Andrei Tarkovsky’s ecstatic masterpiece Anrdei Rublev. It was shown not too long ago at Anthology Film Archives in Manhattan one sunny Saturday afternoon – and it was packed. The other night, I ventured to a theatre just north of Union Square to see Henry Poole is Here. There were no more than 10 people in the audience.
If not for my obsession for navigating the cultural currents of the visual manifestations of religious and secular icons, I would have been reluctant to lighten my wallet by $11 to see this movie on the big screen. Truth be told, if not for Madonna of the Toast, I most likely would have never seen this movie. But, it had been put on my radar after debuting at the Sundance Film Festival. I even blogged about it back in February.
The reviews have been pretty negative (with notable exceptions, like Roger Ebert’s review), which isn’t surprising. The overly sentimental script and soundtrack drown the acting in a treacly tide of feel-good Hollywood schlock. I’m not going to be a spoiler, but nothing will surprise you about the movie’s narrative arc. Nonetheless, it is fascinating to me that the purported face of Jesus in discolored stucco serves as the hinge for all of the movie’s dramatic tension.
A synopsis: Henry Poole moves to California and buys a house. His nosy neighbors learn that he does not intend to be around for long. One of the neighbors sees the face of Jesus on the side of Poole’s house and then a number of “miracles” occur, which include a little girl speaking again after being mute for a year and the improvement of a young woman’s sight and, yes, the eventual discovery of true love. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before all of that, Poole unleashes cynical wrath on all of the people who see the face of Jesus in this stain. But the devout will have none of it and with every additional inexplicable event, Poole finds it more and more difficult to deny that “something” is happening related to the image. That’s pretty much it.
The story of the Jesus face in the movie plays out like any of the stories from the media that I post here, though aspects have been refined for the sake of Hollywood. Example: Esperanza, the nosy, Latina neighbor who speaks, presumably for the benefit of the English language audiences, an overly dainty English-Spanish patois. Now, based on the fact that the story takes place in California, I was amazed that there was no mention of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Esperanza – esperar means to wait or expect in Spanish – was basically called in out of central casting, and had this been a news item – in this part of the country, discovered by this woman (who in the movie brings in members of her church, all of whom speak Spanish) – it is most likely that they would speak of the Virgin, even in the context of a Jesus face. Furthermore, while the faithful do eventually line up to pray at Poole’s wall, the media never gets involved. In reality, the people active enough to organize a church fieldtrip to such a site would also make sure the local news knew about it. As we know, the local news loves a story like this, and the locals love to be a part of stories like this.
To most, these may seem like minor details, but by paying close attention to facts like these, a good writer can render a human story with all of life’s nuances and avoid creating a caricature. Unfortunately, the script achieved the latter and not the former. It’s hard to care about any of the characters for this reason, which is a shame since two actors accustomed to good writing – Cheryl Hines (who makes a strange real estate agent cameo) and Luke Wilson – were obviously just gunning for the paycheck on this one.
Something else I found surprising was that this movie got accepted into the Sundance Film Festival. Having helped to launch careers of filmmakers like the Coen brothers, Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino, I’ve always considered the festival as one of some gravitas. I don’t know enough about today’s culture of films and distribution, but it is clear that there were enough people with funding who believed this film was worth making. And I guess that the Sundance powers that be deemed the movie worthy of being part of festival.
There’s no doubt that the American culture favors something it already knows over something completely new. With stories about Jesus and the Virgin Mary popping up in the unlikeliest of places considered commonplace on the nightly news, the idea of basing a film on such a story is not so surprising.
Another example of this American panache for reassuring regurgitation came at me during the pre-preview ads. Check out this hypnotically bizarre JCPenney Back to School ad for their “American Living” line:
I remember the middle school retreat where I first saw The Breakfast Club, back in the late 1980s. It was one of those mandatory weekend trips, the intention of which was to make us all awkwardly confront our budding pubescent selves (as if our changing bodies and attitudes didn’t already make it hard enough). I was amazed to be sitting in the same room with my teachers watching these teens talk about sex and smoke pot!
Now that clarion call for teenagers to assert their individuality has been muddled by this hokey reenactment, trading angst for branding (check out the pink Nirvana t-shirt). This is certainly not the first time such a tactic has been employed by marketers, though I’m not sure of the commercial’s target audience. Is it people my age who are supposed to let nostalgia steer them, with their children presumably, to the closest JCPenney? Do kids today watch The Breakfast Club? Is the ad meant to appeal to them?
The question of how to appeal to groups of people is complex, but it is a component of every facet of life, from economics and culture to politics. Both the JCPenney ad and Henry Poole is Here are derivative of already established trends. But are they meant to appeal to the people already aware of the trends or are they meant to broaden the audience? Of course, it’s a little bit of both. The bigger question then is, Why do these cultural reruns appeal to us as consumers (and I think in this instance religion and clothes are being consumed in a very similar manner)?
In the case of Henry Poole is Here, I sense that part of the objective was to mainstream these visual phenomena. Because the film falls flat, however, I think it is destined to be forgotten, unlike some of the real-life stories that have come through these parts. Although several visual and narrative threads exist in the stories I tell, one reason for my continued interest in relaying them to you is the very personal nature of each and every story. The movie tried to filter many stories into one, and in doing so lost the impact of intimacy.
So, if you’ve made it this far: Any thoughts?