As of November 15, 2013, Sonic Cinema will be temporarily holding off on accepting further filmmaker requests for reviews. I have had a great many significant life changes this past year, and I have not yet been able to get to all the ones I currently have on the books. Until those have been completed, I will not be accepting new ones at this time. Thank you for your understanding. -Brian Skutle
Religion: The Movie- A Commentary
Last year was the first year I didn’t do a recap of the Oscars after the ceremony, and you know what? It was glorious. Part of it was the fact that very little that happened was unexpected (seriously, I correctly predicted 20 of 24 categories this year), while part of it was, “What’s the point, really?” Instead, I posted a blog I had been working on about “Star Wars.” My time was much better spent doing so.
This year, I want to talk about religion, and particularly, films with a religious subject matter. Now, I’m not a religious person myself—I would consider myself “spiritual, but not religious.” I do believe in the existence of God, but I don’t subscribe to a particular religious mindset, despite years spent going to a local Presbyterian church when I was growing up. And while my own time in church was a positive time, I am wary of the idea of organized religion because of it’s ability to be corrupted by influences more politically-motivated rather than spiritually-driven, and also because of people who use the pulpit, and the power it can have, for selfish means.
The same can be said for religious films. It was actually 15 years ago that “The Omega Code,” a film made by Christians, following a religiously-driven narrative, was released, and actually made a big splash at the box-office. It wasn’t a blockbuster (nor was it a good movie), but it proved that there was an audience for such films, and two years later, a sequel (“Megiddo: The Omega Code 2”) was released. It didn’t do well. In the interim, an adaptation of the Christian best-seller, Left Behind, came out, and though it wasn’t successful in theatres, it did spawn two sequels, which were direct-to-video.
In the past six months alone, the theatre I work at has shown five movies with a religious/Christian theme, including this weekend’s “Son of God,” which is nothing more than a reworked version of footage used in last year’s “The Bible” miniseries in TV. And this coming month brings three more—“God’s Not Dead,” “Heaven is for Real” (directed by “Braveheart” screenwriter Randall Wallace), and Darren Aronofsky’s “Noah.” There’s even a re-adaptation of “Left Behind” in the works, with Nicolas Cage starring. It’s a good time to be a Christian when going to the movies.
Or is it? I haven’t seen all, or even any, really, of the Christian films the theatres have shown over the years (let alone the past six months), and there’s a reason for that, and it doesn’t always have to do with my lack of religion, so to speak. In the Christian films I HAVE seen over the years, the stories are contrived and cliched; the performances feel forced; and the technical qualities in the filmmaking aren’t exactly that good. From an outsider’s perspective, the filmmaking makes it difficult to get into the story, and sometimes, the blatantly evangelical nature of the story is disengaging, even off-putting. But does the filmmaking craft matter to the choir these films are made for, or is the message all that matters?
This disconnect with quality is a problem. I admire the success Georgia’s own Sherwood Pictures has had at the box-office with “Facing the Giants”, “Fireproof”, and “Courageous”—it’s a great, positive message for independent filmmakers—and actually own the first two myself, but all of them suffer from the negatives I listed above, in one way or another, and none of them are going to hit my Top 10 list at the end of the year. And other films, like “October Baby” and “To Save a Life”, aren’t much better, and pale in comparison to even Sherwood’s modest, average efforts. Even though Christian stories, and themes, have been a part of film history since the silent era, it’s become a niche market, unable to really attract top-tier talent, even after the monumental success of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” ten years ago. Some might say it’s a result of Hollywood liberalism, but how do you explain the hundreds of millions of dollars studios are gambling on “Noah” or Ridley Scott’s upcoming “Exodus,” especially after Scott had a misfire with his underrated 2005 Crusades epic, “Kingdom of Heaven”? Studios have been trying to court Christians for years, but the results have shown, ultimately, that it’s not exactly worth their time from a financial perspective, although to be fair, they don’t always put their best foot forward. (Of course, when they do, like in Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” or Kevin Smith’s “Dogma,” it doesn’t help that the Religious Right attacks the film with closed-minded rage and aplomb, but that’s for another article.)
Part of the reason I was inspired to write this wasn’t just the influx of religiously-themed movies I’ve seen come through the theatre of late, but because of the curious case of “Alone Yet Not Alone” and the Oscars. To recap: when nominations were announced in January, the Best Original Song category included the titular song from a Christian film called “Alone Yet Not Alone.” On the day, it seemed like a genuinely bizarre happenstance: the song is a hymn-like effort, and a nice enough song, but the film was an unknown quantity; it’s actual release is not until April of this year, though it did, supposedly, get the minimum qualifying run in 2013 for Oscar consideration. Immediately, red flags were raised, and it was discovered that one of the song’s composers, a member of the Academy’s Music Branch, had emailed members of the Branch asking them to consider his song, a violation of Oscar campaigning protocol. As a result, the nomination was rescinded. Now, the question of what should constitute “inappropriate campaigning” when it comes to Oscars is a subject in and of itself, but this is just one of the most recent examples of the perceived lack of quality in modern Christian cinema that makes it difficult to take the sub genre seriously for movie buffs.
There has to be some way that filmmakers and Christians can come together, serve each other’s desires, and thrive and be successful in a way that expands the tent, so to speak, rather than contracts it. “Gimme Shelter” may have had Vanessa Hudgens, Rosario Dawson, and James Earl Jones, but that doesn’t make up for a story that speaks only to the faithful, and production value that looks like a student film. That’s part of why I’m optimistic about Randall Wallace directing “Heaven is for Real”: here’s a film with a very Christian story, directed by an Oscar-nominated filmmaker, starring an Oscar nominee in Greg Kinnear, and distributed by Sony, even if it’s a subsidiary studio. Yes, it could suck (Wallace did write “Pearl Harbor,” after all), and yes, it’ll probably be treacly and overtly sentimental, but it seems like a positive step in the right direction for an industry to bring it’s weight, and it’s craft, to an audience that deserves to have films that speak to them, and are well made, while not alienating people who don’t see the world quite the same way they do.
All of that being said, below is a list of films, with religious themes and subjects, I consider some of my favorites.
1) “The Last Temptation of Christ”- Martin Scorsese’s harsh, provocative adaptation of Nikos Kazantzakis’s novel explores the story of Jesus as that of a man for whom divinity was a process, not a given. It’s a profoundly moving, human portrait by the Roman Catholic filmmaker.
2) “Andrei Rublev”- Andrei Tarkovsky’s big, broad epic about the Russian icon painter, which looks at the artist’s role in society through trials and tribulations within Russian history, and Rublev’s own life. Made during the Cold War, Tarkovsky’s startling, spiritual film is the antithesis of what the Soviet Union stood for at the time, and as a result, was deeply cut by the censors, and didn’t get released until three years after it’s completion. (On a personal note, I think all of Tarkovsky’s films contain a spiritual center religious people would find deeply satisfying, but don’t tread lightly into his movies—it’s not the easiest trip to make.)
3) “Into Great Silence”- A 162-minute documentary showing life within a brotherhood of Carthusian monks in the mountains of France. Compared to it’s running time, few words are said, but a great deal is said visually about the devotion to God, and a simple life, these monks display.
4 & 5) “Dogma” and “Monty Python’s Life of Brian”- Two wildly controversial comedies that look at questions of faith, and the absurdity of religious dogma, through the witty world views of some of the most singular comedic voices in movie history.
6) “God in America”- Six hours is hardly enough time for PBS to explore all of the nuances of religion’s place in American history, but by looking at specific times, and events, it gets to the heart of what is still a complicated issue.
The second tier of favorites come from all manner of cinema and sources. They include: one guilty pleasure of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation (“A Walk to Remember”); a Korean work about the Buddhist faith, as told in many seasons, and a single location (“Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring”); three more documentaries, including a hilarious essay skewering religious belief (“Religulous”), a genuinely objective look at the Evangelical movement and their kids (“Jesus Camp”), and a heartfelt look at one man’s faith-based journey around the world (“The Cross: The Arthur Blessit Story”); an iconoclastic look at a start-up religion post-WWII, through the experiences of a mentally unhinged veteran (“The Master”); a story of holding on to one’s faith when faced with unimaginable evil (“The Exorcist”); Bergman’s classic tale of a Crusade knight playing chess with Death (“The Seventh Seal”); and finally, Mel Gibson’s brutal vision of the Passion, which wasn’t the deeply felt religious experience some had in watching it for me, but is a genuinely moving film nonetheless (“The Passion of the Christ”).
Thanks for listening, and Viva La Resistance!
A Movie a Week
A Movie a Week: "Inherit the Wind"
A new year, a new set of “A Movie a Week” reviews to write.
We are beginning year six of this column, and hopefully, it’ll be a more consistent one in terms of getting reviews written. I got behind a lot in 2013, and while a lot of it was out of my control, just as much of it could have been avoided. And one film ended up being skipped entirely, but only because I don’t own it, and wasn’t able to get it from Netflix in time. Hopefully, this year will avoid such happenings.
I am playing with fire in that respect, though. There are a great many of the films on my projected lineup this year I don’t own, but part of the fun is in reviewing films I either haven’t seen, or haven’t seen in a while. We’ll see how it goes.
As you know, I always like to bookend this column each year with a particular director. After three foreign filmmaking masters, I really went outside the box with Ed Wood, and last year, started and finished the year with the polarizing Spike Lee. This year, I’m returning to the undisputed upper echelons of cinema with The Master of Suspense, Alfred Hitchcock, but not with any of the usual suspects in terms of his films.
This week, I’m looking at one of the most durable of Hollywood formulas, the courtroom drama, with Stanley Kramer’s evolution trial drama, “Inherit the Wind”. I hope you enjoy!
“Inherit the Wind”- A+
It goes without saying that I’ve never been as eloquent a writer as the late Roger Ebert, but that feels even truer when I watch one of his “Great Movies” to review on my own. That feels all the more accurate when it comes to “Inherit the Wind,” Stanley Kramer’s 1960 adaptation of a stage play which dramatizes the Scopes Trial of 1925. Ebert wrote beautifully about Darwin’s theory of evolution, and in this case, that writing was woven into his love of film in a wonderful way in his 2006 review of Kramer’s review.
In “Wind,” the names are changed, but the story is so obviously that of the Scopes Trial that it might as well just have said “based on a true story.” That trial happened when a science teacher named John T. Scopes was arrested for violating a state law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in schools. For lawmakers, the Bible was the literal truth, and thus, evolution, and Darwin, was an attack on that truth. To prosecute Scopes, William Jennings Bryan, a three-time Presidential nominee and fundamentalist Christian, came to town, although he met his match in Clarence Darrow, who defended Scopes. In the play (and film), Darrow is Henry Drummond, played by Spencer Tracy, and Bryan is Matthew Harrison Brady, played by Fredric March, while Scopes becomes Bertram T. Cates (Dick York), who is in love with a preacher’s daughter (Donna Anderson). Talk about having a difficult relationship with your potential father-in-law.
This is the first time I’ve seen the film, but I’ve read Ebert’s review several times. That colors one’s opinion when you watch a film for the first time, but it goes without saying that he had pretty good taste. From there, it’s up to the film to work it’s magic, and move you on it’s own terms. “Inherit the Wind” is a film that does just that. Images are not as interesting to Kramer as ideas are, and “Wind” has some juicy ones. The core one in the film is, of course, the divide between people who believe in the literal truth of the Bible, and think the Earth (and man) was created more or less as they are, and those who look at evolution, and see a greater understanding of the world, and where we came from. Almost 90 years after the Scopes trial, that divide is still prevalent in American culture, and even though we learn more about evolution through scientific exploration all the time, it seems to grow wider all the time. In that conflict, the film may come down on the side of evolution, and Drummond, but Kramer presents as even-handed an argument between the two as anyone can offer.
There’s more to the film than just the debate about the origins of man, though; if that was all that mattered, the subject would be better handled by a documentary. The love story between Cates and Robin, the preacher’s daughter, is a weak point in the film, but it serves to bring a personal tension between religious belief vs. scientific thought when the daughter is caught between her love for Cates and the bone-deep conviction of her father (Claude Akins). That’s never more true when Brady calls Robin to the stand, and pushes her to the point of tears, and betraying her love. When Cates implores Drummond to let Robin go before he can cross-examine her, he seems to have written his own fate, especially after Drummond’s scientist witnesses are thrown out because, according to the judge (Harry Morgan), their thoughts on evolution have no baring on the trial at hand. The next day, out of options, Drummond does something audacious, and calls Brady to the stand to testify on the Bible, just as Darrow did Bryan during the Scopes trial. What transpires at that point is a showdown between reason and blind faith which Tracy and March play with furious intensity and power that brings everything the film has set up to a head in an emotional, and exhausting, summation that makes the actual verdict, and all that happens afterwards, feel anticlimactic by comparison.
The courtroom drama was a tried and true formula for Hollywood by the time “Inherit the Wind” was released, having been established effortlessly by Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men” a few years earlier. It’s only grown in use, to the point of cliche, ever since, but Kramer’s film, flawlessly acted, remains a powerful, relevant fixture at the peak of the genre. Some of the reason for that is, probably, how the ideas and conflicts it examines are still important now, but even when/if the debate of creationism vs. evolution dies down, I have a feeling “Inherit the Wind” will have no trouble living on as a evocation of the passions the dispute inflames. That, above all, is the definition of a “Great Movie,” and as always, Roger Ebert knew how to pick them.
Previous “A Movie a Week” Reviews
“The Big One” (1998)
“Seven Samurai” (1954)
“Beat the Devil” (1954)
“Some Like It Hot” (1959)
“Inherit the Wind” (1960)
See Brian’s list of 2009 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2010 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2011 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2012 “Movies a Week” here.
See Brian’s list of 2013 “Movies a Week” here.
If you are a fan on Sonic Cinema, Brian's music, or the work of Cinema Nouveau Productions, and would like to show your support, a store is now available through Cafe Press, with T-shirts, hats, buttons, and other merchandise. A wide variety of designs and products are available. The store is Sonic Cinema Shop and can be found at the link provided. Thank you for your support, so I can continue to do what I love. -Brian Skutle
Musical Happenings- June 2013
It feels like I’ve had a busy year thus far musically, but the truth of the matter is, I really haven’t had much I’ve done.
That’s not really true, of course, as I released two long-awaited albums: “Storytelling” and “Arpeggiations & Atmospheres”, both of which had been completed in 2011. The reasons for their delay? Cover art for “Storytelling” (WELL worth the wait from my dear friend, Carrie Stribling), and the fact that I always planned on releasing “Arpeggiations” after “Storytelling” by mere months, so I could keep things moving steadily on the release front. How did that work out for me?
Not too shabby. Hardly record-breaking numbers, but by aggressively promoting not just my new albums, but also my previous four releases, I was able to bump up interest, and get some sales after a long dry spell. To be fair, self promotion is still an area I need to continue to work at, but I think I’m getting the hang of it to a certain extent. (Being able to get friends and loved ones the albums, so that they can listen, and help endorse it, doesn’t hurt either. :) )
Just being able to do those two releases alone would have sated me in years past. This year, however, is different. One of the things I’ve come to realize this past few years, especially as I’ve crossed the 11-year mark in my service at my current job, is that, I want more. As a creative artist, I want to be in control of my life from a financial standpoint, or at least, more in control that it feels like I am now. I want the relative “success” I had in my releases earlier this year to be more than a flash-in-the-pan, but something to build a life off of. I have so many things I wish to accomplish as an artist, and so much to say as a blogger and movie reviewer, that it feels as though just being gainfully employed isn’t really acceptable anymore. I am profoundly grateful for the job that I have, and it has brought me so much more than I ever thought possible in terms of enriching my life (including introducing me to the woman who would become my girlfriend earlier this year, another motivating factor in my current thoughts), but the closer I get to a full dozen years, the more I feel like moving on is the next step for me. I hope that all of you will join me along the way with that.
All that being said, 2013 is far from over for me, musically speaking. In April, as I was taking a week’s vacation off of work, I not only finished recording MIDI trombone parts for a piece I began in 2009, “Deus ex machina: Pressures of Life” (which is available for your listening pleasure on Sonic Cinema by clicking on the title above), but I also re-recorded a couple of electronic parts for a piece I wrote for trombone quartet and electronics back in 2002, entitled “Lost Souls, Guided by Hope”. For both pieces, along with the 2006 written work, “Sonic Contemplation”, I hope to record live trombone parts for each piece’s inclusion on what will be my next major album, ”’Five Stages’...and other pieces from the heart”. That album’s title comes from its central work, my five-movement ”’Five Stages’ Suite”, which has also been recorded live (mostly), and has never been released in full, despite its composition in 1999. I’m planning on having this album available in 2014.
That’s next year, however; this year, I do have more planned. In October, during my annual “Horror Movie Marathon,” which has inspired six pieces, I’m looking to do something even more ambitious, and create a series of musical works in the same vein that will, along with my earlier pieces, be released in a digital-only fashion (a la “Arpeggiations & Atmospheres”) for an EP entitled, “The Cold Wind of Horror”. More on that in October.
A little more recently, however, I began outlining a new composition. It is currently without a title, but it is based around a band orchestration. I’ve wanted to write something for that type of ensemble for a long time, and the retirement of my high school band director, Alfred Watkins, after this past school year was a pretty good catalyst. Like any piece of music, it began with a couple of notes jotted down on manuscript (okay, not like ANY piece of music—I’ve started others simply by noodling around on the synths), although a little inspiration from my current cinematic obsession (“Cloud Atlas”, with one of the best soundtracks I’ve ever heard) helped nudge me along, as well. It’s in its early stages as I write this, but I’m anticipated that, in sound and orchestration, it’s going to be one of my biggest musical landscapes. I’ll keep everyone posted on my Facebook artist page with how progress is going on that piece.
Anyway, that’s all I have for now. Thank you all for your support over the years, and for indulging me my various, eclectic artistic whims.
Thanks for listening,
“Creative Beginnings” at CDBaby
“Dark Experiments” at CDBaby
“Sonic Visions of a New Old West” at CDBaby
“Beyond the Infinite: A Musical Odyssey” at CDBaby
“Storytelling” at CDBaby
“Arpeggiations & Atmospheres” on BandCamp