Posts Tagged ‘evil’

Film: “Irrational Man”

July 24, 2015

Emma Stone and Joachim Phoenix in “Irrational Man”

I don’t think this will be the last film 79- year old Woody Allen will make, but if its is, he’s chosen to go out pitiless and ugly, as Robert Bresson did in L’Argent. A grim affair, the only thing I found amusing about it was seeing how many times he placed the actors in scenic Newport locations, even for one or two lines of dialogue, in order to get all of those cost-saving perks from the city.

His script editor – himself – is as strict as ever. Not one screen moment, not a word, extends a scene past its dramatic function. We follow characters whose lives are meant to embody the living concepts in his by-now familiar philosophy, but it still holds us because he casts his actors so perfectly. They can blithely discuss the meaning of the universe while ordering from a restaurant menu, but they are so particularized that we never hear the author’s voice, only their own.

His theme is familiar, but presented starkly, without the comic trappings he’s used before. But his conclusion is the same: the existence of genuine goodness in this world is as mysterious and unexplained as the existence of evil. At any time, choosing one over the other may be no more than a random act. There is an additional warning, however: it is dangerous to hold back from life because you’re waiting for the exact opportunity to discover your true nature, which will guide you for the future. The danger is, of course, that your “true nature” may be something you – and  the rest of the world – will wish had stayed hidden.

But the bigger story, for me, is the astonishing Emma Stone. As a college student infatuated with her philosophy professor, played  by Joachim Phoenix, she makes her character’s agonizing conversion to disillusionment, and eventual horror, the strongest element in the film. She seems to instinctively avoid falseness and vanity in her performance, which is remarkable in someone so young. Allen could not have chosen someone more sympathetic to his vision.


Film: Distant Thunder (1973)

April 24, 2011

   I first saw this film over 20 years ago.  Upon seeing it again, I was struck by how starkly it contrasts with the standard industry product.  Just look at how the subjects of GOOD and EVIL are treated in mass entertainment.

   The most obvious conclusion: Evil sells Big.  It seems that audiences love the subject in all its forms.  Serial killers are probably the biggest stars, but rapists, pimps, bankers and child abusers are also big.  If the treatment of pure evil is slick and mature enough — as in The Silence of the Lambs — it will be given an Oscar.

   But Goodness, if treated with honest simplicity, is rarely a best seller.  Somehow, audiences have a hard time accepting virtuous behavior from average people.  They want cartoon superheroes, or else phony feel-good stories about tireless, heroic martyrs who defend the rights of the  same poor dull shlubs who sit in the audience.  The only human flaw of these champions (Al Pacino loves playing these guys) is succumbing to all of the beautiful women who want to sleep with them.  The latest variations are the reverse-gender heroes (Julia Roberts) who sleep with stud-candy blanks, or else “victim-heroes” whose virtue comes from overcoming some personal handicap.

   But what about simple, average people who behave in virtuous ways?  What films do you remember about such people?  Distant Thunder succeeds in its modest terms because it refuses to over-dramatize its central conflict.  It is about the people in a very poor village in India in 1942.  The staple of their diet is rice; they would starve without it.  Self sufficient in so many ways, they depend upon the local rice merchant for survival.  Suddenly, after the Japanese invade Singapore, the cost of rice is pushed beyond what anybody has ever seen in their lifetime.  Starvation and disease overwhelm them, and they are forced to leave their homes to beg for food.

   The filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, remains the most honored from his country.  This is one of his later films, very focused and told in the simplest terms.  No swelling music, no impassioned speeches, very little dramatic action.  The spare violence — a riot at the merchant’s house and an attempted rape — are rather awkwardly staged, and dramatically inconsequential.  What stands out, however, is the wrenching pain of  ordinary people who are forced to make a life-and-death decision: whether to give a precious cup of rice to their neighbors, or else watch them die to protect their own families.

   Distant Thunder is about a specific historical event,  but its universal theme is the existence of goodness as basic to the human character.  We may not agree with that perspective, but we need more films that present it so credibly.

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