Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Ohio film on the big screen

As we’ve roamed the country as cinematic Goldilocks, we continue to search for a theater that is just right. At times we’ve said, “This theater only shows mindless blockbusters! Where are the thinking films?” And at times we’ve said, “This theater only shows little, arty films! Where are the popcorn films?”

We visited the Gateway Film Center in the Columbus, next door to The Ohio State University.  They were playing summer blockbusters such as Pete’s Dragon and Suicide Squad but also eclectic films such as the Werner Herzog documentary about the internet, Lo and Behold: Reveries of the Connected World, and The Land, an independent film about four teens in Cleveland Ohio. In Goldilocks fashion, we saw a film between these selections: the modern Western Noir, Hell or High Water.

If I lived in Columbus, the Gateway would be my theater. You can sign up as a member for $30 a month for one person or $45 months as a couple and get unlimited movies, access to members only events, and -- most importantly -- bottomless popcorn. (They have even better deals for students.) The staff was friendly and helpful. The film presentation was very good, and the seats were comfortable. And they had cool art for sale in the hallways. It is a cool place.

I liked Hell or High Water, too. It’s the story of two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) who rob banks to try to save the family homestead. The story is set in Texas but was actually filmed in New Mexico. (The first bank robbery takes place in Archer City, Texas, a place we visited this year, and it looks nothing like Archer City, Texas.) It’s a contemporary film, but the story could well have been set in the Old West (if it had been set in the 1890’s, there would probably been even more sympathy for the bank robbers).

The film does have churches. There’s a storefront church in the background of the opening scenes in Archer City, and other churches can be seen in the background at various times through the film.

There’s also an interesting scene where the two Texas Rangers pursuing the robbers are watching TV in a motel room. A television evangelist is on the screen, and Ranger Hamilton (played by by Jeff Bridges) asks Ranger Parker (played by Gil Birmingham) to change the channel. Parker asks Hamilton if he’s a Christian. Hamilton says he’s a Christian, but he no more believes God is talking through that preacher than He’d talk through his dog. Hamilton teases Parker about his Native American heritage and asks whether he just worships by whooping around the fire. Parker responds that he is a Catholic.

The broader theme of the film is the search for justice. The robbers seek justice from the banks, and the Rangers seek justice from the robbers. You have to see this film whether justice is found, but the viewer will be reminded that ultimately, justice can only come from God.

Oh, and about that art in the hallways...

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ohio movies on the small screen

A common, seemingly unending complaint from me on our state-by-state small screen roundups is how rarely films set in states are actually filmed in those states. Not this week! This week every film is set in Ohio, and every film was, at least partially, filmed in the state.

It means we can’t use “Ohio” films like Goodbye Columbus, Bye, Bye Birdie or A Nightmare on Elm Street or The Man Who Came to Dinner, and yet we still have plenty enough.

We can start with The Kings of Summer. This is a coming of age story, and in this film, that’s not code for a film about a character’s first sexual experience. Too many films equate becoming a man or woman with sex. (The R rating for the film is mainly due to language.) In the film, Joe (Nick Robinson) is in constant conflict with his widowed father (Nick Offerman). Joe decides to build a house in the woods and invites his best friend to come along. The film explores what is true independence along with the question of whether independence is worth the cost.

If you’re a fan of TV sitcoms, you’ll recognize many faces from popular shows. Besides Parks and Recreation (Offerman), other shows represented include Community (Alison Brie), Silicon Valley (Tom Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani), Will and Grace (Megan Mullally), Arrested Development (Tony Hale), along with several others.

Some of the film was made in North Carolina, but a number of Ohio locations are used, including Cleveland, Chagrin Falls, Warrensville Heights, Lyndhurst, Bainbridge and Berea.

Jodie Foster was an amazing child actress, so it makes sense that when she directed 1991’s LIttle Man Tate, she chose a story that features a child. Foster acted in the film as well, playing the mother of a child genius (Adam Hann-Byrd), seeking to get her the child the best education possible. Ohio locations: Oxford, Cincinnati, and Columbus.

Another actor/director, George Clooney, made a film in Ohio, 2011’s The Ides of March. The film is about dirty politics on the presidential campaign trail, and yet every slimy candidate in the film (trigger warning, political commentary) is more appealing than the two major candidates this year (commentary done). Ohio locations are in Oxford and Cincinnati.

One of my favorite new filmmakers is Jeff Nichols. He often makes films in the South and his native Arkansas, but he made 2011’s Take Shelter in Ohio. The strange but powerful story of a man (Michael Shannon) with apocalyptic visions was filmed in the Ohio locations of Elyria, Grafton, LeGrange, Chardon, Oberlin, Lorain, and Catawba Island.

Jim Jarmusch, the quirky independent writer/director, made his breakthrough film, 1984’s Stranger Than Paradise (a road picture), in three different locations; New York, Florida, and Cleveland, Ohio. An earlier independent film, Larry Peerce’s 1964 One Potato, Two Potato, was one of the first films to deal with the topic of interracial marriage. The whole film was made in Painesville, Ohio.

Paul Schrader, the writer of Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, is one of the more lauded filmmakers of the ‘70’s. He not only wrote but also directed 1987’s Light of Day. The movie has surprising co-stars cast as brother and sister (Michael J. Fox as a tough, cigarette smoking rock and roller and Joan Jett as an even tougher smoking rock and roller) who form the band, The Barbarians. The film is set in Cleveland, and some of it was filmed there.

If you’re going to make a film about the Cleveland Indians, you better film some of it in Cleveland. Sadly, the only Ohio filming was the exteriors of the stadium, but I really like 1989’s Major League, so we’ll say that’s good enough. The film features two of my favorite actors that never seemed to be used enough, Tom Berenger and Rene Russo. Also cast in very funny roles, Charlie Sheen and Wesley Snipes can be seen prior to their legal woes and general (real life) craziness.

Another film with just a bit filmed in the state (flyover shots of Cincinnati), I’m including this next one because it’s one of the best films of all time. Ranked #37 on the American Film Institute’s list of greatest films, 1946’s The Best Years of Our Lives won 7 Oscars; including Best Picture, Director (William Wyler), Actor (Fredric March), and Screenplay (Robert E. Sherwood). The film follows three World War Two veterans returning to their homes in Ohio and their struggles to adjust back to work, family, and community. It retains a power to challenge and stir the heart and mind that few films manage seventy years later.

Finally, another movie filmed (almost) entirely in Ohio, American Splendor. Paul Giamatti plays real life cartoonist Harvey Pekar who creates a graphic novel of his own, quite ordinary, life. At a time when superheroes dominate movies, the film is a nice reminder that not only are there good films about ordinary people, there are also good comic books about ordinary people. The movie was filmed on location in Cleveland and Lakewood, Ohio, though the segments of Pekar on The Dave Letterman Show are quite understandably filmed in New York City.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Literary Churches -- Journal d'un Curé de Campagne (The Diary of a Country Priest)

Paul wrote to Titus, a man he’d sent to work in the churches in Crete, “Do not let anyone despise you” (Titus 2:15). I’ve often wondered how anyone can be responsible for the attitudes of others. How can you keep other people from despising you? I guess a place to start would be not to behave like the young cleric of Ambricourt in Robert Bresson’s classic 1951 film, The Diary of a Country Priest.

This French film was acclaimed in its time (winning the Venice Film Festival along with other prestigious international awards) and is still highly regarded in the filmmaking and critical community. But if you’ve been here before, you know the drill. We aren’t here to judge the film, but rather the church and clergy in the film.

Admittedly, the Young Priest Without a Name has challenges coming into his first parish in a small town. The town seems set against him sight unseen. There was a prickly situation in much of Europe for the last couple of centuries where people had to financially support the church whether they liked it or not. That alone might make me want to give such a church a thumbs down. But the young priest makes a bad situation worse.

There’s a bit of pastoral advice I’ve received that might seem old fashioned.  For a clergyman (yes, clergyman), don’t be alone with a woman (or girl). I know Billy Graham followed this advice through his ministry, and the priest in the film would have been much better off if he followed it, even though he is never accused of sexual impropriety.

Early in the film we see the priest teaching a catechism class of young girls (one of the few times in the film we see him doing any actual ministry). The girls conspire to pretend that all but one of the girls is ignorant about the Lord’s Supper. When the priest asks the one girl to stay behind after class, he soon discovers it was a plot to mock him. He falls for it completely.  He is widely derided for his lack of social skills. Social skills are kind of helpful skills for ministry.
In his parish, there is also a delicate situation involving a power couple, a count and countess. Their daughter suspects her father is unfaithful to her mother. The priest meets with the teenage daughter alone and later with the countess alone. Both situations lead to rumors of the priest giving harsh council. Because the priest put himself in one person’s word against another situations, he has no way to combat the rumors.

Sadly, the priest also has health problems.  He has a weak stomach and can’t each much. He seems to be taking the council of Paul in I Timothy 5:23 of drinking wine for his stomach. But when people only see him drinking wine and eating bread soaked in wine, they assume he’s a drunkard. It doesn’t help he never tells anyone about his health problems (spoiler – he has stomach cancer).
His biggest problem as a pastor – he says he can’t pray. Now, even Mother Teresa admitted to dark nights of the soul, but she kept praying. This guy confesses -- often --  that he can’t pray, which is sort of his main job.
You really have to wonder if a guy is a great pastor when Martin Scorsese says that he was a model for Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver (you know, the guy who talks to a mirror while holding a gun and saying, “You talking to me?”)
Toward the end of the priest’s life, he does come up with a pretty profound theological realization, “All is grace.” Just too bad he never figures out a way to share God’s grace with other people. Two steeples to the church in this film.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Vermont movie on the big screen

“We don’t make fun of people.”

“Except for Christians.”

This is the policy of the family in the current art house release, Captain Fantastic. It is said as a joke which happens to be true. This is arguably the case for much of our culture as a whole. Since Christians had a place of dominance in Western society, Christians can be mocked because it’s speaking truth to power. And Christians can’t fight back because their founder said to turn the other cheek. So if they object to being ridiculed, Christians are hypocrites, and deserve more ridicule.

I should say,  though, that the pastor and the church in the film are wholly worthy of mocking. The film is about a family who decide to live off the grid in the wilderness of Washington State. The mother has had to leave because of mental health issues, and her parents pay for her hospitalization. After she (small spoiler) commits suicide, her parents decide to give her a Christian funeral and a “Christian burial.” The pastor and the church go along with this plan.

The problem is that the woman left a will expressing her Buddhist philosophy and her desire for cremation. Therefore, everyone involved has not only an ethical obligation but also a legal obligation to honor the woman’s wishes. The children’s father, Ben (Viggo Mortensen), comes to the service and walks uninvited to the front of the sanctuary. He reads from the will. He also mocks the pastor for giving a superficial eulogy without knowing the woman being memorialized. If I were the pastor conducting a service, I would allow the spouse of the deceased, of all people, to have his say. But instead, security guards boot the husband out of the service and Jack, the deceased woman’s father (played by Frank Langella),  promises to have Ben arrested if he tries to come to the graveside service. We see things from Ben’s perspective, and we may not have the whole story, but I’m still giving the church in the film a meager 2 Steeple rating.

But I did like the film itself.  The actors playing the children in the film are attractive and are able to keep themselves relatively clean and their hair quite shiny while living in the wilderness. One technical point that bothered me (Mindy pointed it out). The eldest child in the family received acceptance letters from Ivy League colleges; the letters came in business envelopes (4 ⅛” by 9 ½.) Anyone who has dealt with that process knows, rejection letters come in regular envelopes and acceptance letters come in big packets with brochures, forms, and maybe even bumper stickers. Sometimes it’s the little things that bother one in a film.

But we enjoyed the film and especially the theater we saw it in, The Savoy in Montpelier. The building was used to screen films at the beginning of the 20th century, but it hasn’t been in continuous use as a movie theater. There are now two screens, one in a basement area (where we saw our film). Popcorn with real butter is reasonably priced, and an assortment of adult beverages are for sale. The staff was friendly. And the theater has a membership program that allows members to borrow from a library of DVDs (with some hard to find items). It’s a cool little place.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Vermont films on the small screen

A comedy with a searing and cynical take on the media as gossip mongers and money grubbers sounds like a current, cutting edge project. Or it’s a William Wellman directed, studio comedy from 1937, Nothing Sacred.  The film tells the story of a young woman, Hazel Flagg, who lives in the fictional town of Warsaw, Vermont. She’s misdiagnosed with terminal radiation poisoning. A struggling newspaperman, Wally Cook, takes Hazel to New York for a proto-Make-a-Wish adventure. But when it’s discovered that Hazel is just fine, saving face takes priority over the truth.

Carole Lombard and Fredric March star in the film, and their charm has endured through the decades. The film is still funny, but there are some unfortunate racial jokes that are now just sad. There are no churches in the film, but original sin as a theological issue is fully in evidence.

There are scenes in Vermont which were not actually filmed in Vermont. (Though the New York scenes were filmed in New York.) But I have to give the film props for a fun take on the reserved, taciturn nature of Vermonters and a bonus for a shoutout to Vermont native Calvin Coolidge.
Another (more optimistic) comedy about a Vermont yokel who goes to the big city is 1936’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Frank Capra’s classic stars Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur in a story about a simple man who inherits a fortune. Like Nothing Sacred, this film also has scenes in Vermont and New York, but the entire film was produced on the Columbia Studio lot.

Harold Ramis (not author)
The contrast between the simple country life in Vermont and the vulgar life in the big city is a comedy trope that endured through the decades but a switch comes in the 1980’s when, instead of having the hayseed from Vermont go to the big city, an urbanite becomes a fish out of water in rural Vermont. 1987’s Baby Boom starred Diane Keaton as a Manhattan career woman who inherits a baby from a distant relative and must move to the country. The film also stars Harold Ramis, a deceased actor people increasingly refer to as my doppelganger. This movie was actually filmed on location in Vermont and New York.

1988’s Funny Farm is an unacknowledged remake of the TV show Green Acres in which a prosperous New York couple (Chevy Chase and Madolyn Smith Osborne) who decide to become farmers in the Vermont countryside. They encounter eccentric locals and customs, and the film was directed by George Roy Hill on location in Vermont and New York City.

Alfred HItchcock set one of his rare comedies in Vermont, 1955’s The Trouble with Harry. It’s a film about a corpse that plays hide and seek in Vermont’s lovely autumn foliage. The film features Shirley MacLaine in her first starring role and also features television’s Jerry Mathers (Leave It To Beaver). Most of the film was made on location in Vermont.

There are dramas set in Vermont as well. The 1939 Bette Davis tearjerker about a young socialite with a brain tumor, Dark Victory, was made entirely on Hollywood sets. (That film features an odd cameo from Humphrey Bogart as a humble stable master.)  1987’s dour story of a love triangle, September, written and directed by Woody Allen, was set in Vermont but filmed in New York (because the Woodman hates to leave New York).

The 1994 werewolf film, Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson and directed by Mike Nichols, did some location shooting in Vermont. In 2000, Robert Zemeckis directed the psychological thriller, What Lies Beneath, starring Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, set and filmed in Vermont. In 2011, prior to making superhero films for Warner Brothers, Zack Snyder made a bizarre, salacious and rather sick film called Sucker Punch that is set in Vermont but was filmed in Canada.
Disney made a film about a family that builds a sanctuary for Canadian Geese, 1965’s Those Calloways. The film starred Brian Keith, Vera Miles, Linda Evans, and Brandon De Wilde. Many of us who have had to deal with gaggles of geese pooping on cars and attacking small children, wonder why such a sanctuary was ever necessary.  The film was shot on location in Vermont.

But for me, the quintessential Vermont film will always be 1954’s White Christmas. I’ve watched it in December, often on Christmas Eve, for almost every year of my life. The story of Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye deciding to help their pathetic old military superior save his ski lodge in Vermont is corny, sure, but it has some great musical numbers. And some films become so ingrained in holiday tradition that quality isn’t really an issue any more. Sadly, the entire film was made in California.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Literary Movie Churches: Wise Blood (1979)

There's a whole bunch of preachers in 1979's Wise Blood who talk about their churches, but you don't really see much in the way of churches in film; which might be just as well, because usually they don't seem like churches you'd like to see.

John Huston adapted the Flannery O'Connor novel, without losing any of its strangeness. It takes place in the gothic South when the "N" word is still sadly prevalent, almost as prevalent as talk about Jesus.

The opening credits of the film are shown over signage: there's a home painted sign that reads "If You Repent God has Forgiveness for You in Jesus Your Savior," and another that reads, "Whatever Enslaves You, Jesus Christ of Nazareth Can Set You Free, Call on Him Now." Even a Dairy Queen puts "Repent, Be Baptized in Jesus Name." The name of Jesus seems to be everywhere, which is not to the liking of the film's protagonist, Hazel Motes.

O'Connor's childhood church, not a Wise Blood type of church
Motes returned home from serving overseas, finding many changes -- such as a new highway running through town. He goes to visit his grandfather's grave, which is inscribed with the words, "Gone to Become an Angle" (perhaps someone believed in a strange kind of geometric reincarnation). Motes' grandfather (played by director, John Huston) was a traveling preacher, and we see flashbacks to his revival meetings. All the preaching we hear from him is hellfire and brimstone.

There’s a place for such preaching. Jonathan Edwards' "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" is one of the greatest sermons in the history of the Church, and warning of hell can be as important as warning homeowners of an approaching forest fire. But such preaching can be lacking in grace, which seems to be the case of this deceased preacher. In one flashback, we see young Hazel so frightened by a sermon that he wets his pants. So the church of Grandpa Motes receives our Movie Churches only one steeple.

Going to the city, Hazel comes across a street preacher by the name of Asa Hawks (played by Harry Dean Stanton) who claims to be blind. Asa happily shows people a newspaper clipping that tells of the dozens of people coming to the Lord when he promised to blind himself for Christ's sake. Asa doesn't show people the article about his chickening out of blinding himself, but he does tell Motes a very important thing: "Jesus is a fact. You can't run away from Jesus."

Asa is accompanied by his daughter, who hands out flyers that read, "Jesus Saves." His street sermon consists of "Give up a dollar for Jesus." I'm afraid I'll also have to give Asa Hawks’ ministry one steeple because we don't give less than that.

In reaction to the ministry of these two men and what he saw in his service overseas, Hazel Motes begins a very different kind of ministry. He stands on top of his car to proclaim the beginning of "The Church without Jesus Christ Crucified." He attracts a small crowd to proclaim the tenets of his new sect. "Where you've come from is gone, where you're going weren't never there, and where you are you should just run away from" is his doctrine, a homespun existentialism. He claims there was no Fall (into sin) so there's no judgment or need for redemption.

Motes claims have peace, but no one can see it in him. He claims he's no preacher, but everyone thinks he's a preacher. He also says that no one needs redemption if he has a good automobile. But what he claims is his good automobile is continually breaking down. "A Church without Christ" seems as useful as "Food without Nutrition or Flavor" or a "House that Provides No Shelter," so even though Motes has more integrity than almost anyone else in the film, his church in this movie gets just one steeple.

The huckster Hoover Shoates (Ned Beatty) sees potential for profit in "A Church without Christ,"
but when Motes rejects him, Shoates makes his own: "Church of Jesus Christ without Christ." He cites three benefits to his church:
1) Nothing foreign about the church
2) The church is right up to date, so no one will get ahead of you
3) It costs just a dollar to join.

Those are three awfully persuasive selling points, but I'm afraid I'm going to have to give this church one steeple.

So none of these Movie Churches are ones I'd like to join. But somehow, the more these churches exclude Jesus, the brighter He shines.

(Visiting Savannah, Georgia we were able to visit Flannery O'Connor's childhood home and see the farm from her later years)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

It's a motel! No, it's a movie theater! Kids, kids -- it's both!

Fairlee motel/drive-in box office
The box office. Though you actually buy tickets at the snack bar.
What business best represents 1950's & 60's popular culture? Sure, you could say the soda fountain. But soda fountains had been around a lot longer than that. So you might choose the motel biz because Eisenhower's national highway system kicked in during the fifties. The drive-in, also tied to the American love of the car, had their heyday in the fifties and sixties, too. But you don't have to choose when you're in Fairlee, Vermont. In this town they have a combination motel/drive-in.

The front of the motel
So if you ever had a hard time getting comfortable in your car or pick-up truck at the movie theater, if you ever had trouble adjusting the temperature, these are not problems at this theater, where you can watch the drive-in movie from your motel bed, looking through the bedroom window. 

When I was kid, my brother and I could see the Star-View drive-in using a telescope. We couldn't actually see what was onscreen, but we could see there was something on the screen. This looked way cooler.

The back of the motel, windows face the screen
So we considered going to the movies at this theater.  But the outside of the rooms themselves scared us a bit. 

The Fairlee Drive-in works on a cash only basis. Using a credit or debit card would, I suppose, interrupt the nostalgic experience. I only had a $20 bill in my wallet. They charged $9 per adult, and if you have food in your car there is an additional $5 charge. Since we are living in our van, there's always food there. And they were showing a double feature of Ice Age: Collision Course and Suicide Squad. That kind of scared us a bit as well.

But we're glad it exists.