Three horny guys hit the road for a “sure thing” but learn something about themselves along the way.
That’s the blueprint behind “Come As You Are,” but appearances
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… Holy light
SILENT LIGHT — Carlos Reygadas, Mexico/Holland, 10 (upgraded from 9)
I got really down over the death of Tartan Films and thus the distribution limbo imposed on at least two masterpieces — SILENT LIGHT and YOU, THE LIVING — but there’s cause for rejoicing this week. New York’s Museum of Modern Art began Wednesday a one-week run for SILENT LIGHT. Besides giving me an incentive to care about finishing this essay, much of which has been sitting in my draft folder since FilmFestDC back in May, the MoMA run also makes it eligible for a certain film poll and far more importantly gives filmgoers in at least one US city a chance to see this great film in the only way it should be — in a theater. The New York Times (thanks Manohla Dargis; almost all is forgiven over JUNO) wrote a rapturous review and, according to an exhibitor I know, interest among other distributors in perking up. But if you live in or near New York, you owe it to yourself to see this film; you will not see a better one this year. And perhaps New Yorkers also owe it to the rest of the country to show a distributor that a potential audience does exist for SILENT LIGHT.
Now, no sane person (though Jonathan Rosenbaum has yet to be heard from) is under any illusion that SILENT LIGHT could be another DARK KNIGHT or even a potential LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE. And I realize all the critical heavy breathing that follows may not make SILENT LIGHT seem like the most entertaining movie ever. And in a certain sense of “entertaining,” the film obviously isn’t entertaining. It’s definitely slow and meditative, but I do think it does suck you in, partly because the plot is so simple and unadorned (and thus readily accessible), with characters defined as archetypes without being limited to them, but also partly because it’s so drop-dead gorgeous to look at. Director Carlos Reygadas never seems to force anything on us, but somehow everything is there on the surface anyway, so the praise from snooty critics shouldn’t turn people off. SILENT LIGHT is as mesmerizing and hypnotic as a film gets — and I speak as someone myself who isn’t automatically a fan of this sort of “transcendental” film (I’m convinced “Bresson” is French for “boring”). And I was turned on to the film by a Cannes report from Mike D’Angelo, who has similar inclinations, calling himself “the sort of Neanderthal film buff who generally prefers traditional narratives to beatific tone poems.”
Just consider the title for a moment, and its two words — “silent” and “light.” The title tells you it’s a quiet, religious film (rhymes with S—– N—-). Then consider the universal fact of all films — that they unspool and thus only exist in time, a point emphasized in this case by the most obvious fact about the existential experience of watching the film — that SILENT LIGHT is slow. But lastly, SILENT LIGHT’s surface plot is an unapologetically old-fashioned morality tale about an adulterous affair, set in a small religious community of Mennonites in the northern Mexican province of Chihuahua. It basically tells the story of SUNRISE — of a man who strays from his marriage and is brought back by a rainstorm-threat to his wife’s health. (WARNING: There be explicit plot spoilers after the jump, in the context of thematic discussion.)
SILENT LIGHT is about as “unchatty” a film as I’ve ever seen; it’s already several minutes old before the first word is spoken, and not entirely because of the already-famous opening shot (a literal SUNRISE reference?) which I blethered about here. The family says grace before meals three times and the only word ever said is “amen.” Also, the style of the dialogue performance emphasizes the silences between words — the characters in SILENT LIGHT never make small talk, they speak slowly, precisely, never over one another, and not while performing actions. The body language and performance style underlines this “negative” manner — precise, spare and careful, the scene between Johan and his father being a perfect example of this. “Better actors” wouldn’t work in the way that these nonprofessional Mennonite actors do — the sense of performance, of seeing people think before acting — would be absent because professionals are taught (I add “correctly, generally”) that this is bad acting.
Also, consider the scene of the couple driving in the car, which is the traditional “marital quarrel” scene and features the only rain in the film, which becomes a driving rainstorm unto death. And curiously, this scene, as close to a modern confrontation scene as exists, takes place on the only asphalt road in the film. But SILENT LIGHT is a movie about an adulterous triangle that has already begun and of which the wife already knows as the movie begins, so the Dramatic Revelations, the “noise” as it were, are at a minimum. In the car, Johan and Esther never raise their voices, but Esther uses the word “w***e” to refer to the other woman Marianne, part of the Mennonite community, not an outsider like The Woman from the City in SUNRISE. “W***e” from that woman in that context weighs heavier than a thousand Oprahesque “Girlfriend…” rants, precisely because of her silence, her irenicism, and the power of things not said.
Silence and sound serve a theological function in the film that goes beyond the film’s merely being situated in a religious community. The style of the little speech there is in SILENT LIGHT is the general style of liturgical language — formal and ritualized. And the subject matter of it mostly concerns weighty matters (if you think the Coens are too chatty about too little, this film is THE antidote). The prayers said are mostly silence — I’ve mentioned the family Graces but also the funeral, where there is a song and little else said. The Church throughout history has emphasized the role of silence and the necessity for it as Prayer 101; not for nothing is the previously-best recent movie about a religious community called INTO GREAT SILENCE.
Obviously every film ever made uses light (it would be a black screen otherwise). But more than almost any film I can recall, light is made obvious and present in SILENT LIGHT. Again, the opening and closing shots, where the director-god shows us his fiat that there will be light creating the world from the dark and formless void that starts the film, and then bringing that drama to an end by returning to darkness — acts of genesis and apocalypse.
But several times during the film, Reygadas does something else: he composes a shot where one segment of the frame is obtrusively more or less illuminated than the rest of the image, or there are radical changes of light quality within the shot as the camera moves through the space. I can’t find a still that illustrates my point, but one example is the early scene at the garage, which begins in the dazzling outdoor sun looking into the opaque building (another is the family’s children inside the van, watching TV as Johan and Marianne return from a sexual encounter). In the former case, as the camera crawls toward the building’s open face, following Johan’s walk only much slower, the camera adjusts as the human iris does and the image inside the open garage door slowly becomes intelligible, revealed to us, unveiled to us. There are numerous other shots where Reygadas’ camera catches sunbeams and he “keeps in” overexposed blemishes within the frame — I’m thinking most specifically of the first meeting we see of Johan and Marianne on top of the hill, where the blemishes and sunbeams make the world seem to sparkle.
Also, look at the still with which I led a review of Carl-Theodor Dreyer’s ORDET a couple of years ago. It’s practically plagiarized in SILENT LIGHT, and in the Reygadas film, the absolute whiteness of the shot is far more blinding in color and calls more attention to itself as whiteness and as pure dazzling light more than even Dreyer’s “glowing-wall” lighting schemes. I specifically remember on first viewing of SILENT LIGHT seeing that blindingly-white shot and saying to myself, “ohmigawd, he’s gonna give us the ORDET ending.” Now to be fair: SILENT LIGHT is not as stylized as ORDET: there’s nothing even approximating Johannes and the overall environment is far more naturalistic, with nature itself being a character (more on that anon), as opposed to the kammerspiel-style claustrophobia of ORDET and GERTRUD (though less so DAY OF WRATH, where an illicit affair is also specifically and there-almost-obtrusively situated in nature). But the ending of the film isn’t the only reference to Dreyer in the film — the performance style that I described above was used by Dreyer in his three final films, and David Bordwell’s landmark (if often annoying) book on Dreyer provided all the techniques the Great Dane uses to make them so slow.
SILENT LIGHT is also “about” one other thing, the other thing all movies have besides sound and light, but which few-to-no movies actually really notice, and that thing is “time.” This movie causes us to notice time more than most, simply because it’s so slowly paced in so many ways, from the frequent silences to the slow manner of people’s speech to Reygadas holding onto shots long after the “drama” is over. One of the film’s earliest shots shows from a long distance a truck turning onto a road that follows the frame’s horizontal axis, and Reygadas holds onto that shot until the truck has completely made the journey to the edge of the frame, even though nothing else happens. It’s a cliche to say that modern life and harrying and traditional life is more slowly-paced, but that is something this film simply oozes without ever having to demonstrate. Reygadas isn’t even concerned with giving us much sense of offscreen time, the time between scenes, sometimes to quite dramatic effect. When Johan speaks to his father to tell him he has decided to leave Esther, the scene starts indoors among milking machines, and then they pull the doors back to go outside and a blinding white light floods in, reflected off the white winter snow. It’s visually shocking but also more a dramatic “unveiling” and also a surprise (we had no sense whatever that months had passed since the previous scene, which took place in bright summer sun.)
But more than that, Time is also quite literally a character in SILENT LIGHT, and one associated with death and decay, and with the result of sin. Church thought has long linked time with the world, with Becoming and seen it as a feature of creation not the creator. St. Augustine said famously near the end of the CONFESSIONS that God exists outside time (and so there was no time before Genesis and will be no time after the Apocalypse). Near the start, when the family leaves and Johan is alone, he goes to the clock on the wall — thankfully the Mennonites use old-fashioned ticking clocks that you can hear (and thus conspicuously not-hear also) — and he stops it. And then he sits down to cry, we don’t at this point of the movie know why. Yes, it’s his bid to stop time but that only underscores the futility of it, since the movie does in fact continue, as does his life and the burden of his sin. When he visits his father’s house, who warns him that the Evil One is lurking after him in his adultery, the ticking clock can be heard throughout the scene. We see the family pendulum one other time and it’s still stopped, but what we see is the reflection is another family dinner — in other words exactly the obligations (i.e., the lives) created by Johan’s earlier actions and which he cannot undo.¹ Repeatedly throughout the movie characters express regret with the status quo with words to the effect of “if I could only turn back time”: Johan telling his father he wishes he hadn’t married Esther so he could now have Marianne, the affair with whom is his attempt to right his past mistake with God; Esther saying to Johan in the car in their one confrontation that she wishes it was a bad dream and she could wake up and it hadn’t all happened; Johan saying at the funeral that he would give anything to turn back time. He’s told “that’s the only thing we cannot do, Johan.” But God can.
Like the late works the easily cited Carl-Theodor Dreyer (not just in ORDET), SILENT LIGHT is a movie filled with silences, where light is made conspicuous, where time is distended. But what Reygadas does that finally makes this movie a masterpiece is that he doesn’t just use silence, light and time as themselves so profusely that the film primarily becomes about silence, light and time, but that religion transcends them. The damage from the affair, as constructed by these things, is undone by the ultimate religious act — a miracle, and one that reverses time. The miracle entails the conquest of the ultimate silence and the ultimate result of time — i.e., the conquest of death. And then the light recedes afterward.
As I wrote last year, SILENT LIGHT’s beginning is a genesis, an act of creation, which would seem to require an apocalypse for an end. The end of SILENT LIGHT is that of course, in the dumbly-literal way that the end of every movie is an apocalypse. But also in the sense that the world is fiated by letting there be light, it ends via its final absence. And I’m also reminded of how the word “apocalypse” has one meaning in current languages (“the end,” more or less) and another meaning in the Greek of the New Testament (“revelation,” or more literally “unveiling”). And “unveiling” is exactly how Reygadas uses light, camera moves and even story itself — the plot points are more noted en passant than made a “point” of, per se. His use of light to unveil includes a cleansing post-sin shower rhymes with the garage scene I mentioned above — moving into and out of a closed space hidden by the darkness. Note also the qualities of the light in the one extended sex scene in the film, how it changes during the scene and how a window is framed. After Marianne has told Johan (talk about archetypal names) that this sex was “goodbye” and their affair must end because “peace is stronger than love,” i.e., her guilty conscience, Johan takes a post-coital look at the the white wall, a motif that later, as I note above, resonates with death, both the death of the affair and death from the reverberations of the affair.
The resurrection of Esther is also paralleled with the very rising of the sun itself in the opening shot (something I didn’t even get until second viewing). Reygadas takes seven minutes on that opening shot because awakenings, whether of the universe or of the dead, are gradual. Esther doesn’t awake suddenly, but starts to twitch her face, twitch her eyes, move her lips and swallow before she actually opens her eyes. On the soundtrack, while this is going on and exactly as nature sounds blended into the opening, they blend in here — the sound of insects now rhyming with the morning cicadas during the movie world’s genesis. And then breathing on the soundtrack, followed by Esther’s first words, “poor Johan,” situating her in the family context as the first cut in the film showed nature as shaped by man. Further, the resurrection here is brought about by an act of love, as are both the creation of the world by God and the creation of a film by a director (a labor of love, as they say.) After Esther has been brought back, Johan’s father goes to the family clock and starts the pendulum, not only restoring the status quo antebellum but also implying that the period of the stopped clock was when we could most see God’s hand at work, i.e., outside time
Even apart from all this, SILENT LIGHT also is at its simplest and most obvious, a sympathetic “look” at this religious Mennonite community, a corner of the world that we don’t see in the movies. Reygadas and the utter authenticity of his actors tells us so much about their community and makes them seem enviable without seeming to. When Johan goes to visit his father he’s cheating on Esther, he tells his father upon being warned of the Evil One to “speak to me as a father, not as a preacher,” and dad gives the obvious answer “I am both.” There is no separation of morals and family here, in a healthy patriarchy. For another example, the sex roles are quite defined, with women sitting on one side of the funeral “service” and men on the other. One detail I found fascinating when the family went out for an outing in a natural pool was that with all the children, the opposite-sex parent washed the hair, while the same-sex parent washed the body. No doubt the feminists in the audience would get conniptions at Reygadas using archetypal tropes like The Other Woman being associated with nature (we first see her on a hilltop, her bare legs trudging through the grass) But as I noted re USPHIZIN (another portrayal of a traditionalist enclave in the contemporary world) and as can even be seen in the Bible itself, the women in traditional patriarchal societies are not patsies and are even the religiously privileged ones. On the former point, Esther is shown operating a combine harvester (the cult of domesticity and “women’s spheres” was the result of urban leisure in early modernity). But more importantly, a woman Marianne is the means for the closing miracle; it’s her kiss which brings Rachel back to life, and it also happens to be the first time we see the two women together (“thank you, Marianne” are the first words she says to the “w***e’). And like with Mary Magdelene, the Apostle to the Apostles being the first to see the Risen Lord, the only people SILENT LIGHT actually shows in the same room as Esther are other women — Marianne (who leaves the home right after), and two of the daughters (who hardly have any real sense of what they’ve seen) who are invited to “say hello to mummy” after the men have been shown invited into the room to “say goodbye to mummy.” The younger child announces to the gathered Mennonites that “mummy has awakened,” but is not believed, though she insists that “dad, mum wants to see you” before the camera steps outside and the film ends without our ever seeing the two together.
¹ Well, he could slaughter his whole family, I suppose. But that isn’t really on the radar of this sort of movie, or of most normal people.
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Excellent thoughts, I as well was enamored by how the initial visual theme is reduplicated throughout the film and then totally recapitulated within the storyline as well. There are also numerous occasions in which Reygadas moves from part to whole, as in the opening shot of his father’s advice monologue: it opens on the lower part of his face, then the shot grows wider and tracks a bit until his entire face is in the frame. This shot takes a while, leaving a wonderful pschological trace, intimate, as if his father is revealing something to his son that he hadn’t really shared with anyone before.
Additionally, I think there is a lot to the biblical imagery in the film that is set in motion by the possible Genesis reference at the beginning. In this broad context, it is enlightening to read his wife’s death in the torrent as a sort of flood narrative, judged as a social consequence of Johan’s sin. I think this all points to Johan’s eventual restoration, the Magdelene reference classing him with those slow to believe but blessed nonetheless.
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Songs of innocence; songs of experience
A couple of people at St. Blogs have posted in the last day about pop culture sexualizing and/or desensitizing children. Rich Leonardi recounts girls who looked about 10 singing “Stacy’s Mom” on the karaoke. Barbara Nicolosi, in the course of a vigorous attack on LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, protests particularly a scene involving a 7-year-old in a burlesque (skip to the graf starting “a seven year old” … the rest of her piece is certainly worth reading, but it’s not relevant to my point here).
I could certainly imagine the LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE scene being offensive if there were nudity or the girl’s movements were continually sexualized (Barbara says they were; she has seen the film, I have not). But I’m not sure how much damage it actually does to the girl. I think it’s much more a matter of adult repugnance at being made to see a child in a sexual light,¹ because adults know the meaning of certain things that kids don’t. I went to an NBA game in Atlanta when the Macarena was all the rage, and during one of the time-outs or quarter- or half-breaks, the Hawks had some girls who looked to be about 6 or 7 on the court to do the dance. Their costumes were all color-coded, like the women in the video, and when they got to the last move, which involves rolling your hips, it was all I could do to think “I wonder if they know what that gesture symbolizes.” But it’s very easy for an experienced adult to overestimate what an innocent child will understand.
But for the girl in LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE herself, assuming there was no unsimulated nudity, it could very well be meaningless. Kids play “dress-up” and “let’s pretend” all the time. She was probably directed like the kid stars in BUGSY MALONE … although one of them grew up to be Scott Baio, so maybe this is horrendous, after all.
As for Rich’s anecdote … I’m not sure how much of lyrics like that kids absorb, depending on age. I can only speak personally and maybe I was just unusually innocent as a boy or grew up in a more-generally-innocent time. But I’m certain that nonchalant defusing is the best way to keep children innocent. Children are curious and pick up pretty infallibly on adult awkwardness.
I certainly remember loving LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade” — it was a hit when I was 9 years old. No adult can look at the lyrics and not know what is happening in the song, even if he doesn’t know what is English for “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir” (though the lyrics to this All Saints remix just turn my stomach). I loved Sweet, David Bowie and British glam-rock of the early-70s without ever catching onto anything “queer” going on, or figuring out what “Little Willy” or “Rebel, Rebel” were all about or what a groupie was (from “Fox on the Run”). After emigration, I could also recall being mystified at the coy ads on US daytime TV for feminine products like tampons and douches, which you couldn’t advertise on British TV at the time. And asking in 6th-grade health class, when we were on the nutrition unit, why women need more iron than men (something mentioned in some vitamin ads at the time — “and being women, we lose some of that” was the vague reference to what I later learned was menstruation).
When I was about 12 or 13, my mother took me to see THE SENTINEL. There was a scene in which the frame cuts off the heroine from the waist and forearm down. But from the direction of the arm and the sounds she is making, it is clear to an adult that she’s masturbating. At this scene, I turned to my mother and innocently asked “what is she doing?” She casually said “oh, she’s just got a tummyache.” A man sitting behind us overheard this and burst out laughing. My mother was so nonchalant in defusing my question that, I remember the movie but had no memory of this exchange or the man’s laughter when she recounted it to me years later. In principle, she could have been making it all up.
Looking back, the British humour I was raised on as a boy was pretty raunchy. There was huge amounts of the transvestite and sex-identity humor on Benny Hill, Monty Python and Music-Hall-type shows. There was the lowbrow “Blackpool postcard” type of humor and the higher-toned satire of the English public-school classes. In “Virtually Normal,” Andrew Sullivan provided the following anecdote:
I also remember making a joke in a debate competition at the age of 12, at the time of a homosexual scandal involving the leader of the British Liberal Party. I joked that life was better under the Conservatives — or behind the Liberals for that matter. It achieved a raucous response, but I had no idea what the analogy meant. Perhaps my schoolboy audience hadn’t, either.
I remember very precisely the scandal he’s referring to as Sullivan and I are only 3 years apart — Jeremy Thorpe. And during the Year of Monica, it often occurred to me that I could listen to the BBC’s and ITV’s coverage of Thorpe’s downfall, which centered on homosexual blackmail, without asking “dad, what’s fellatio?” (Now, Radio 4 on the other hand …) Whether this is because the word wasn’t used or it was but I had no way of even being mystified about it I cannot say (and for the purposes of my present point, it doesn’t matter). The American press somehow made the impact of the Year of Monica worse by compounding the graphic coverage with hand-wringing think pieces about “how to talk to the kids about it.” Answer: don’t and/or deflect. Frankness can be worse than silence.
As always, everything comes back to SOUTH PARK, in particular episodes called “Proper Condom Use” (about sex ed), or “Tom’s Rhinoplasty” (about the boys having a crush on Miss Ellen … I’ll always treasure Cartman’s mind-numbingly literal understanding of a locker-room term for lesbian sex), or “Stupid Spoiled W***e” (aka “Paris Hilton is not a good role model”). These shows are, in significant part, about G-rated kids (they’re really much more innocent than you might guess) in an R-rated world — a “Kids Say the Darndest Things” turned up to 11. The primary point of these and several other episodes is how adults damage children by putting in their heads thoughts and situations and language that they don’t understand. A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, but there also is such a thing as too much and not enough knowledge at the same time. Kids’ll do some things on their own, of course. The sex ed episode begins with Stan and Kyle, playing like Sam Peckinpah’s WILD BUNCH kids, destroying a Jennifer Lopez doll for making albums and movies. And it ends with the restoration of the status quo antebellum:
Stan: Well, I guess we got a while to wait before we have to worry about sex and diseases, huh, Wendy?
Wendy: Yeah. Thank God.
Cartman: Well, I guess now that that’s out of the way, we can get on with our lives.
(Then some more dirty jokes)
I thinks that’s a healthier attitude toward bawdy material and children — try to protect them from it, but don’t make a big deal out of the failures — it just magnifies them. In other words, “minimize it” in every sense of that word — as my mother did at THE SENTINEL. I don’t think I’m just engaged in nostalgia, but when I was a boy, the culture had a “sorta ask, kinda tell” attitude toward bawdy entertainment. It strikes me now as a decent compromise in popular culture between prudery and perversity about sex. It was there to be seen by those with eyes and disposition to see it; but not there (or at least not obviously or undeniably) for those who wanted or could not “get” it.
¹ Which is certainly reason enough to call it offensive, I hasten to add — using the child to corrupt others with ill thoughts.
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The supply of award-worthy titles likely will shrink significantly the very year the industry's top awards ceremony demands more of them. Published September 4, 2009
"Sunshine Cleaning" feels like a poor facsimile of "Little Miss Sunshine" — a film full of quirky people whose foibles seem to have been created simply because first-time screenwriter Megan Holley and director Christine Jeffs wanted to make a similarly successful quirky comedy. Published March 20, 2009
My Sundance capsule for the Salt Lake City Weekly:
Allan Moyle’s 1990 cult hit, “Pump Up the Volume” is about teen rebellion, making it akin with most other films about the high school experience. What’s special about this one is that, in a way both earnest and angry, it instructs us to empower ourselves and make our voice heard. The genre often celebrates the …
Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, “American Psycho,” begins with “Abandon all ye who enter here,” as it appears as graffiti on a wall. Director Mary Herron’s 2000 adaptation opens with what looks like red drops of blood dripping past the frame but reveals itself to be blobs of sauce being drizzled on a plate at …
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A resounding victory, it wasn’t. Still, Birds of Prey did flap to first place on the weekend’s box-office charts, as expected, ending Bad Boys For Life’s three-week stay at the top. Birds pecked up less than $33.3 million in North America, though, according to early estimates. That flies well short of the $45 million most […]
Welcome, welcome everybody. Don’t trip on the red carpet on the way to your seat. You all look very fine indeed, what with those tuxedos/evening gowns/sweatpants you’ve donned for this very, very special occasion. We’re talking about the Plugged In Movie Awards, of course. It’s a ceremony far more lavish than the Oscars … or […]
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Like LADY BIRD, this was very nice and pretty competent!
Greta Gerwig's film strips away much of Louisa May Alcott's earnest messages about faith, family and marriage.
The post <i>Little Women</i> 2019: Another Feckless Feminist Rendering appeared first on The American Conservative.
Nearly 900 movies were released in North America in 2018. (About as many as Netflix put out singlehandedly.) Seems like we here at Plugged In watched most of them. Oh, we couldn’t get to all of them, of course. But for the most part if you’ve heard of a movie, we saw it, reviewed it […]
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