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?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

From Our Northern Neighbors

According to the Toronto Sun, “An uncanny likeness of the Virgin Mary formed into the bark of a Scarborough tree has left dumbfounded residents wondering if their neighbourhood has been divinely blessed.” Neighbor Christopher Moreau, a condo superintendent who had just cracked an after-work beer in his yard, was the first to spot the “uncanny likeness.” He assured the reporter that he is “not a wacko” and was indeed “stone-cold sober.”

The image has inspired people to cry and shake, though the owners of the property where the tree stands have refused to be identified or make a statement. While they may not be thrilled about the manifestation and the potential hordes of the faithful queuing to look and pray, Moreau’s mother-in-law just received news “that her lymph node cancer appears to have been cleared.”

Miraculous as that sounds, Neil McCarthy, a representative of the Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto, towed the church’s standard line about such occurrences: applauding any event that causes people to consider their faith, but refusing to “authenticate” it.

Probably no surprise to Moreau, who was raised Catholic but is not particularly devout because he “disagrees with the Catholic church's emphasis on collecting money from churchgoers – and [questions] why the Vatican is so rich when poverty is rampant.”

Good question. But, Moreau has an even better one: "Why do I need to go to church? . . . I feel that God has come to me."

That seems to be the sentiment in the just released film Henry Poole Is Here, which I'm aiming to see this week, even though it has been panned by just about everyone. No matter, I'm sure my Madonna of the Toast perspective will give me something to say about it different from the views of traditional film critics.

Friday, August 8, 2008

Jesus & Me and My Phone Make Three

Pensacola, Florida, resident Linda Square volunteers at Englewood Coin Laundry. According to this Pensacola News Journal article, in an effort to kill time during a recent shift, she pulled out her phone and “began scrolling through the substantial library of family photos stored on the device.” Amid all of the recognizable scenes and faces, a “dark and blurry” image caught her attention. She had no idea what it was. She looked closely at the image, created on July 25, and still didn’t recognize it. Then she turned the screen so it was horizontal. That’s when things got interesting.

In the right part of the image she saw herself, and looking over her on the left side of the screen: Jesus, his face bearded, a white light over His head. Square has no recollection of taking the picture. She visited her local cell phone purveyor and asked if the company had sent her the image (which strikes me as a question you ask when you already know the answer). My guess is that the phone was in a pocket or bag and somehow got triggered to become a camera.

Do you think she was wearing this shirt when she went to the store?

Obviously, Square is proud of her discovery, finding it inspirational. She has been waiting to interview as a foster parent: "He is telling me to prepare for this . . . He's telling me to get myself together."

Of course, the best parts of this story are the t-shirt and cell phone. I understand why people like looking at photographs, whether as art or a way to remember, but I am shocked by the frequency at which I see an individual, mostly on trains and buses, but sometimes at bars, doing exactly what Square had been doing: killing time staring into a hand-held screen. The image is of such appeal to us that the easier it is to focus on it, the more we do. We have always turned to the image for meaning, as a way to understand experience, and now, too many people seem to favor the moment as memory, rather than experiencing it enough to let the moment pass before it has been memorialized.

In Square’s case, how the image came to be is another story, but her discovery of it was because she opted to look at old photos rather than stare at the tumbling colors in a dryer.

I wonder if she would stare at spinning clothes if her shirt, which says “Jesus & Me,” were in the load?

Do you think many people wear cell phone photographs on shirts?

(image from an article about encoding data on clothing, business cards, etc.)