Both the title and the trailer of Mira Nair’s “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” (now playing in DC at the E Street Cinema and Bethesda Row Cinema) suggest that this will be the story of how a man becomes a fundamentalist: how a young-gun New York financier, humiliated and mistreated after 9/11, turns his back on America and returns to Pakistan to become an Islamic terrorist. This is not the actual story of the film. In a sense the movie has too much story for this summary, and the protagonist, Changez Khan (a changeable, intense Riz Ahmed), gets trapped in the conflicting interpretations by which other people file down his life into intelligibility.
Critical thinking has so thoroughly colonized our idea of education that we tend to think it’s the only kind of thinking. Tests try to measure it, and ritzy private schools all claim to teach it. Critical thinking–analysis, not mere acceptance–is a skill we can all learn. And we’ve learned it too well. We’ve learned only critical thinking skills, and not the equally challenging skills of prudent acceptance: We don’t even realize that we need to learn when to say yes, and to what.
“4000 Miles,” playing at the Studio Theatre in DC through May 5, opens when twentysomething college dropout Leo turns up unexpectedly at his grandma’s New York City apartment. He’s lugging a bike, which he just used to travel cross-country, a grueling journey on which his best friend was killed–Leo skipped the funeral, and has been AWOL ever since.
Neither Leo nor his grandmother Vera are the world’s most lovable characters. Leo uses his dead friend to try to get laid, says that things are “more honest” when he really means “easier,” puts his feet on the couch, and expects his grandma to wait on him. (In fact both Leo and his girlfriend come across as really self-centered in that “spilling other people’s stuff and not cleaning it up” way.) Vera is irascible and prone to calling everybody “stupid.” She’s a (former?) Communist, and there are the usual “old people aren’t what they used to be” jokes, like when Leo tells her that the dress she’s planning to wear to a friend’s funeral is so sheer that you can see her bra: “Of course it is, that’s why I’m wearing this bra! It’s the bra that goes with this dress.” But it’s genuinely affecting to watch these two people with diminishing connections to others attempting to forge a bond with one another.
The play is too complex to be reduced to a message. This is mostly good, although a little bit more message might have helped the play’s conclusion: Eavesdropping told me that I was not the only audience member who felt like the play just stopped rather than coming to an ending. There’s a surprising streak of traditionalism here, a defense of getting a job, becoming a man (and not just a gender-neutral adult, either!), reconciling with your family even when they’re kind of awful, and entering into the rituals prescribed by your culture rather than the individualistic ones you make up on your own.
There are also the advice scenes. Advice and its uselessness are recurring themes of media aimed at “millennial” young adults. They’re simultaneously seeking advice from their elders and primed for disappointment, braced for advice which is useless or terrible. They definitely don’t trust the parental generation. In “4000 miles” the advice comes from the grandparent generation and, because it seems too cynical and resigned and old-fashioned, it’s summarily rejected. Vera tries to be blunt and realistic about men and their idiocies, but Leo’s girlfriend just tells her, “I don’t make allowances of that kind based on gender.” Yes well, let me know how that works out for you.
It’s hard to find stories based entirely on the phenomenon of giving advice, even though it’s such a huge part of our lives. There’s Emma, but I’d be interested in hearing about other stories which explore the ways advice can be taken or mistaken, rejected, or misinterpreted. Advice often assumes some degree of intergenerational trust, and always assumes that you’re not a special and unique snowflake. My impression is that movies and TV aimed at millennials often show a real longing for intergenerational connection and a sarcastic backlash against the belief that everyone’s special and different; put together, these two impulses lead to a lot of advice scenes. Commenters, what are your candidates for insightful artistic portrayals of bad, good, or just irrelevant advice?
“Beyond the Hills,” the wrenching new movie from Romanian director Cristian Mungiu (“4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days”), is easy for American audiences to misunderstand. The Washington City Paper‘s review thinks it’s about the sufferings of an unbeliever trapped “within a world of intolerance.” It’s about “a battle between salvation and love.” This is badly missing the point.
“Beyond the Hills” is about two young women, Voichita and Alina, who grew up together in an orphanage. When they aged out of the orphanage Alina left the country, going to Germany to find work, while Voichita entered an Orthodox women’s monastery. The movie begins when Alina returns, ostensibly to visit Voichita but actually to rekindle their (apparently lesbian) relationship and persuade Voichita to leave the nuns. The movie is at least somewhat “based on a true story” about an exorcism gone wrong, so you know that this visit will end very, very badly. But the portrayal of faith and love in “Beyond the Hills” is complex and far more challenging than a mere clash between misunderstood secular girl and intolerant religious nuns.
Lots of discussion below the cut, including some spoilers.
In “No,” the new satire about the ad campaigns waged by both sides in the 1988 vote that led Augusto Pinochet to step down, the anti-Pinochet side faces a much more difficult task than expected. They thought their task was to convince the people that Pinochet was a dictator with blood on his hands. It turned out that people basically agreed with them on that part. They had the much tougher task of convincing people that it mattered. The elections will be rigged, the past is a foreign country, why bother?
“No” is immensely fun to watch, despite the grim subject matter. It looks just glorious: the filmmakers decided to make the whole movie look like we’re watching it on VHS, with fuzz on the images and moments of blurry color separation. This is an obvious “medium is the message” form-follows-function thing, but it also just looks really good. It makes the world of the movie cheaply-colored, like memories of the bad old days. It heightens our awareness of how any attempt to honor history inevitably warps it—and it also reminds us of how bright and poppy and cheesy and glam the pop culture of the 1980s really was. All those bouncy one-hit wonders about nuclear war.
“No” also gives us an unexpected hero to root for. Gael Garcia Bernal, as adman Rene Saavedra, is quite easy on the eyes. His storyline, in which he tries to reconcile with his dissident ex (the mother of his child), is an effective and poignant counterbalance to the movie’s overall optimism-always-wins arc.
The story of “No” is basically this: the Chilean constitution requires Pinochet to hold what amounts to a vote of no confidence, and if he loses, he’ll hold open elections. Each side (“yes” for more Pinochet/no elections, “no” for elections) will get a brief segment of advertising time each night. The No side leans on Saavedra to mastermind their campaign. He replaces their ads, which are heavy tributes to the tortured and the disappeared, with happy, funny scenes of jazzercise and mimes. He doesn’t want folk music, he doesn’t want sad solo dancing, he wants a jingle. Read More…
Spurred by Rod’s post on fatherhood in “Portlandia”, I’ve been thinking about how to talk about the distinction between the work of fathering and the status of father. By “the work of fathering” I mean all the stuff we call “involved parenting,” all of the nurturing and discipline and cleaning and feeding. The acts of love. These are obviously good things in themselves. (I don’t know that everybody has to be a Sensitive New-Age Father—everybody knows you have feelings, but that doesn’t mean we all need to talk about them!—but the overall point about fathering as active work is right.) And we’re getting better, I think, at talking about this work and acknowledging its importance.
All of this talk about the work of fathering, though, runs the risk of acting as if “father” is a variable in an algebraic equation. Let x = cleaning and cooking and hugging and setting rules (and, in more conservative circles, being a Male Role Model). X in itself just is the sum of these things. If we think this way, then nothing much is lost if somebody who is not the child’s biological father does these things, since the acts themselves are what matter.
Several years ago I read a series of interviews with college students about their beliefs on marriage and family life. They were strikingly traditionalist in their overall images of mother vs. father—mom is nosy but nurturing, dad is the provider and protector. But one girl said something which I think resonates with a lot of young adults today: “I don’t see why the mother has to be a woman and the father has to be a man.” If the work of mothering and fathering gets done, haven’t we solved for X?
I think there’s a way of both honoring the work of fathering and acknowledging the importance of the specific man who happens to be your biological father—the importance of the body and therefore of physical relatedness. These two aspects of fatherhood seem to me to mirror the resilience and sensitivity axes I’ve talked about before, in which resilience and sensitivity don’t actually compete for importance but can even strengthen one another. Resilience focuses on what you have—for example, the work that got done. Sensitivity, which I think of as a positive trait of being attuned to aesthetic realities, can among other things acknowledge and mourn losses. These are both good in themselves and neither can replace the other. Read More…
“Love of one is a barbarism; for it is exercised at the expense of all others. The love of God, too.”
–Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil
Woolly Mammoth is a D.C. theater company known for edgy playwrights and subject matter—Mike Daisey vs. Apple, the JonBenet Ramsey case, things like that. In its current production, Danai Gurira’s The Convert (playing through March 10), Woolly takes on an even more daring topic: conflicted, but real, Christian faith. It’s a terrific, intense, and genuinely provocative show which earns every minute of its three-hour running length.
The Convert is set in 1890s Rhodesia. Its all-black cast includes Christians and animists and in-betweeners, compromisers and rebels and scammers. It begins when a rural girl, Jekesai, flees an arranged marriage. She takes refuge at the home of the local missionary (a sincere but worldly man, who aims to break the color line by being ordained to the Catholic priesthood) and converts to Christianity in a rush of need, high emotion, and garbled prayers.
Over time Jekesai—renamed Esther—becomes the missionary’s favored protégée. She knows the Bible backwards and forwards, and her faith is deep and vivid. The Convert is a play capable of using its head and its heart at once: We’re shown Jekesai/Esther’s mixed motives. We come to understand that her faith, like that of virtually all new or relatively-untested Christians, is faith in many things at once—in her own abilities, in her “Master” the missionary; and, I think, in a certain sense that the world’s injustice has limits. But she also has genuine, fiercely strong faith in Christ.
The first parts of the three-act play explore the heartbreaking choices and compromises Jekesai/Esther makes or refuses to make. She breaks from her family because she’s told that she must: they’re pagans. She takes the missionary seriously—maybe more seriously than he takes himself, as it turns out—when he says that he had to choose a new father for himself after his conversion. But she allows him to counsel her to compromise the Gospel when it comes to racism. He warns her that she can’t correct whites when they make mistakes about Scripture, and although she tries to argue that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, (importantly) male nor female… in the end she gives in. Read More…
Last year I quit drinking, and read a ton of Dostoyevsky. Sadly, I was unable to play the Dostoyevsky Drinking Game–which I recommend to you all–but I did get a chance to see some of the weird resonances between what I was reading and what I was experiencing. Most of what follows is about the Pevear/Volonkhosky translations (except for The Gambler, which I read in MacAndrew’s translation) and there are spoilers for two nineteenth-century novels.
As we handed over our tickets to see Michael Haneke’s Oscar-nominated “Amour,” the ticket-taker said, “Theater is on your right. Enjoy!” My companion, who had already seen the story of an increasingly isolated old man trying to care for his beloved, degenerating wife, mused that this was perhaps not the most appropriate exhortation. Maybe something more like, “It’s theater five. Endure!”
“Amour” is a totally compelling, emotionally devastating movie, in which Haneke’s technical trademarks support his overall theme. It’s an extremely painful movie to watch and it’s by far the greatest of the three Haneke films I’ve watched so far. Spoilers etc. under the cut.
In 2008 I wrote “Grotesquerie and Grief: Abortion in Horror Media,” which looked at two common ways abortion appears in horror movies, comics, and prose. Last night I watched 2012′s “The Frozen” (trailer here) and while the movie is a mess, it’s a fascinating attempt to tell a different kind of story. Some spoilers below the cut.