Sunday, January 28, 2007

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

Little Miss Sunshine(2006, R, 101 min.)

Directed
by Jonathan Dayton &
Valerie Faris
Written by Michael Arndt

Abigail Breslin...Olive

Greg Kinnear...Richard
Paul Dano...Dwayne
Alan Arkin...Grandpa
Toni Collette...Sheryl
Steve Carell...Frank


Little Miss Sunshine is the deservedly R-rated, road-trip movie of the Hoovers, a dysfunctional family, as they take their homely and plumb, 7-year-old Olive from their New Mexico home to a "Little Miss" beauty pageant in California. The story asks the question: What is a "winner" and what is a "loser."

This is not a movie I would recommend for purposes of entertainment because of the vulgarity, and general dysfunctional skewyness. It's not "family" entertainment, although it may be about a more typical American family than I'm willing admit. But it is a film that can ironically play a role in helping to promote vitreous moral values. The movie was made for about $8M, and as of this writing has grossed about $60M. It has also garnered a good many awards, with 4 Academy nominations, including Best Picture. Certainly this movie connects with a good many people in America. So, I offer these observations about the film's moral premise.

THE CHARACTERS

The drama and comedy come from the desperately different and unattainable goals each of the main character has inappropriately latched onto. In their unique ways, each is a "looser" as the world would define it—none are at the top of their chosen games, and each could easily vie for last place.

OLIVE dreams of being a beauty queen, although she has little talent, and a rotund body. She repeatedly watches beauty pageants on a DVD, and practices being surprised at winning. We are told she rehearses her talent that Grandpa has taught her. Although, no one has seen her "talent," which is saved for the film's climax. Happenstance puts her into the final running of a distant once-in-a-life-time little miss pageant 2 days drive away, and circumstances force the entire clan into a yellow VW bus for the trip.

RICHARD, the clan's father, dreams of being a motivational speaker with this "9-steps" that will supposedly take any loser and turn him or her into a winner. But Richard, unfortunately, has barely achieved Step 3, although he is bargaining for a book deal that he hopes will put him in the national limelight. Someone should tell him that they throw "lime" on corpses.

DWAYNE, is the disgruntled 15-year old, who reads Nietzsche, says he hates everyone, and has taken a vow of silence until he can get in the Air Force Academy and learn to fly jets.

GRANDPA, is the vulgar, self-proclaimed playboy, with a heroin habit and Nazi bullets hidden in his body. He encourages Dwayne to bed as many women as he can, and fancies himself as the loving role model and pageant talent coach for Olive. We can't wait to see what Grandpa has taught Olive. On second thought, you can wait -- a life time.

SHERYL, is the stressed out mom who smokes in secret. Because movies have no smell, this works. Sheryl's goal is for the family to love each other and for her and Richard to have a normal married relationship. This goal is actually one that is worth not only rooting for, but is possible. In fact, Sheryl's goal (and character) is the only one that is not quirky, and perhaps for good reason.

Who's left? Oh, yeah, how could we forget UNCLE FRANK. And we shouldn't forget Uncle Frank, who is put under the care of his sister, Sheryl, while he emotionally recovers from an attempted wrist-slashing suicide. Why did he try to kill himself, asks Olive. Well, as Frank tries to explain to the innocent Olive, he fell in love with a male graduate student who ran off with his academic competitor and No. 2 Proust (prust) Scholar in America, who also beat out Frank for a Rockefeller Fellowship, and all of that resulted in Frank being fired from the university.
RICHARD: Who's the No. 1 Proust Scholar, Frank.
FRANK: I am, Richard.
PROUST VS. NIETZSCHE
Before we can discuss the Moments of Grace and the story's moral premise, it's necessary to set up the underlying conflict of values as articulated in the writings of French novelist and essayist Marcel Proust (d. 1922), and German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900). As mentioned above, Uncle Frank is a Proust scholar, and he's paired up with his Nietzsche reading, vow-of-silence nephew, Dwayne. This is not just a superficial pairing, because slivers of Proust and Nietzsche thinking about the meaning of suffering articulate what this move is really about.

The Nietzsche sliver used by LMS's writer Michael Arndt is the absence of a moral transcendence -- e.g. man must create his own moral standards. Nietzsche is the philosopher that announced "God is Dead," and on Dwayne's T-Shirt the inscription, which is slowly revealed, reads: "Jesus was Wrong." Nietzsche, it could be argued, is one of modernity's father's of moral relativism. He dies insane in 1900, only to be picked up, morphed, and canonized by Adolph Hitler for emboldening the Third Reich reign of terror. For Nietzsche, the suffering he experiences is mental. There is no happiness for Nietzsche, only the hope of a superman, eternal re-occurrence, and the will to power—the three themes, by the way, of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my favorite films.

On the other hand, the philosophical sliver from Proust is that out of a lifetime of suffering we can find happiness; or coming from another direction, it is the experiences of suffering throughout life that bring meaning and allow us to know happiness. Personally, for Proust the suffering was physical that forced him to spend the last three years of his life in a corked-lined bedroom writing his magnum opus—a seven volume novel translated variedly but most recently as In Search of Lost Time. It is perhaps the longest novel ever written, and some claim the best. Those that make a lifetime of its study are called Proust Scholars.

Dwayne and Frank, therefore, are like contrary but similarly lost souls who are the movie's Greek Choruses. They are like dueling philosophers, who on the end of a pier overlooking an unpredictable, deep and dark ocean, try to analyze the human condition and find meaning in man's sufferings.

When the movie begins each of the Hoover clan is unhappy, except for the hopeful Olive when she's invited to the pageant. The source of their sadness is the self-indulgent, moral relativism that dominates their lives. It is as if Dwayne's larger than life-size bed-sheet painting of Nietzsche that hangs on his bedroom wall, has brought a curse to the household, so that each member reeks with a passion to seek their own way regardless of anyone else's needs. And like Nietzsche, each character fails in their life's pursuit and falls into a suffering despair.

SPOILER'S FOLLOW

Sheryl's dream of a functional family is lost to her harried permissiveness.

Richard's deal for a book falls through, because he's a nobody.

Frank's lover, fellowship award, and job are lost, turning him to suicide.

Dwayne's goal of being a jet pilot crashes, when he discovers he's color blind.

Olive's dream of being a beauty queen is dashed by a lack of knowledge and talent

And Grandpa's goal of being Olive's hero and coach is cut short by death from an overdose.

Each of these failures has its root in Nietzsche's claim that there is no transcendent morality, although we can be called to achieve "superman" status even as each of us finds their own moral way. Dwayne hates his self-described "hell" of waiting to get through high school. He says to Frank at the end of the pier:
DWAYNE: You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work. Fuck that. And fuck the Air Force Academy. If I want to fly, I'll find a way to fly. You do what you love, and fuck the rest.
But, of course, it is exactly that worldview that has catapulted Dwayne and the family into their personal and social dysfunctions and sadness.

On the other hand, we find this sliver of Proust's thinking, perhaps selectively plucked from those seven volumes (which I have not read), that speaks of virtue and some hope, and is, quite frankly and perhaps inadvertently, in keeping with Judea-Christian thinking:
Out of life's suffering comes the meaning of life and happiness.
It is as if this concept slowly invades the family along with Frank's invasion. Although Frank may be a Proust scholar he obviously hasn't learned this little tidbit of truth. Perhaps he needed to be couped up with a Nietzsche scholar to understand Proust by comparison. (So much for study in the Proust ghetto.)

Each of our characters has their moment of grace, where they are confronted by that Proust truth, and upon it they must each choose. And it is because the consequences of those choices aligns with our perception of reality, that grounds this film's popularity. These are extreme characters, but they experience reality as we know it is, regardless of the political or social ideology of how we think reality should be. In other words, regardless of our moral relativism, natural law is still boss, and this movie reinforces that truth in an entertaining and arresting way.

THE MORAL PREMISE

While we might argue that Olive is the story's protagonist, she is only the protag by virtue of providing the story's physical motivation of getting her to the pageant in time for registration. (Ticking clocks do work -- and wonderfully in this movie.) But Little Miss Sunshine, I will argue, has six protagonists and each has a Moment of Grace upon which their character's plight swings.

At 31 minutes into the story, the VW's clutch fails and the only way to get to the pageant on time is for everyone to get out and push until the van gets up to a third-gear speed -- and then one-by-one, jump into the van via the side door. The broken down van brings suffering, and out of that suffering everyone puts aside their personal disgruntledness, gets out and pushes, then jumps or are pulled in (no stunt doubles here), and off the van goes down "Carefree Hwy." The result is glee, happiness, and satisfaction...for a while at least, until selfishness sets back in. But the experience points the whole family down the right road, literally and figuratively. Now that they've learned something together, it's time for each to deal with their personal issues one-on-one, and make a choice about the moral premise.

Before we look at the individual MOG's let's decipher the moral premise. Here are some possible ways to state the moral premise for this film based on the conflict of values that Proust (via Frank) and Nietzsche (via Dwayne) bring to the story.

Doing what I want and ignoring the needs of others
leads to dread; but

Doing what others need, putting aside my needs
leads to happiness.


Or, put another way:

Rejection of personal suffering
leads to confusion and sadness; but

The embrace of personal suffering
leads to purpose and happiness.


Or:
Defining success as the attainment of power
leads to sadness; but

Defining success as serving others
leads to happiness.
Or put simply:

Pride leads to failure and sadness; but
Humility leads to success and happiness.

Or, in the movie's vernacular:

Expecting others to alleviate our suffering
leads to losing; but

Alleviating the suffering of others
leads to winning.
MOMENTS OF GRACE

Now, let's look at the moments of grace for each character, to understand how the movie consistently applies the above true moral premise.

Richard's moment of grace is when Stan Grossman tells him (twice) that there is no book deal, because nobody knows who Richard is. Richards is a nobody. Up to this time Richard expected Stan Grossman to provide Richard with prestige and power. When Grossman says no, Richard takes it badly, and Sheryl is also gravely disappointed in putting her trust in Richard's dream as well. But Richard embraces the moral premise's truth, and dedicates himself all the more to getting Olive to the pageant on time. Sheryl, too, follows Richard's lead, and their decision adds to the healing of their relationship. Richard could have rejected the moral premise, and instead of taking off at night to seek his dream and Stan Grossman, Richard could have sacrificed Olive's need and used the family's travel time during the day to try to get his book deal back on track. Richard is determined to persevere in his dream, but for now he puts it aside to serve the needs of Olive.

Grandpa's first moment of grace comes after Richard first rejection by Grossman. Richard, mad, depressed, and after a short argument with Sheryl, gets back in the van and continues to drive. After Dwayne discovers that Olive isn't with them, they go back and pick her up. Then, as they continue to drive, Grandpa comes forward, kneels besides Richard and says to him, with his arm around him as he drives:
GRANDPA: Richard...whatever happens. You tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people would ever do, and I include myself in that category. You took a big chance. It took guts and I'm proud of you.
This is a starling moment for Grandpa, who has been so self-serving up to this point, except for encouraging Olive. This moment on his knees (of humility), and his enthusiasm for pushing the van (selflessness), reveals that down deep he loves his family, and his happiness and virtuous pride comes out of Richard and Sheryl's suffering. It is a moment that also helps Sheryl to heal in her relationship with Richard.

Frank's moment of grace occurs just before the movie begins, as soon as his sister, Sheryl, takes him in. We might say that when he was rejected by so many situations in his life he rejected the moral premise and decided to following the path to sadness, dread, and death. But he's given a second chance, and this time he embraces the moral premise, and tries his best to make things go as smoothly as they can for Sheryl. He sees her suffering, and he's determined to do whatever he's asked to do, and then some to alleviate her suffering. At the beginning of the movie he is definitely that quintessential loser. But by movie's end he's proving himself more and more to be a winner in the eyes of the family.

Grandpa's second moment of grace occurs during the family's first night in a motel. After supposedly coaching Olive on her talent competition and tucking her in bed he goes into the bathroom, locks the door, and snorts some heroin. The next morning, Olive announces to her family that Grandpa won't wake up. At the hospital the family is told Grandpa died. Grandpa chooses the dark side of the moral premise, and tries to alleviate his loser mentality with heroin. It's a selfish act. There was much he could have done to help others, and he was happy when helping to push the van, coach Olive, and encourage Richard. But that wasn't enough for him, and his life ends in tragedy. His family, rallies, however, much as they did when the van's clutch broke. They steal his body out a hospital window, into the back the van for the morning drive to the pageant, where they find a funeral home to take care of Grandpa's remains. In the suffering of Grandpa's death, the family again puts aside their selfish tendencies, and words together for the good of another (e.g. "stealing" Grandpa's remains from an uncaring hospital and a rude bereavement counselor, and helping Olive get to the pageant on time.)

Dwayne's moment of grace comes in the van when Olive gives him an eye-test. When she gets to the color-blindness test, he flunks it. He doesn't know what that means, until Frank tells him he can't fly jets if he's colorblind. Dwayne loses it, and threatens to knock a
hole in the van's roof or sidewall from his sudden distress. Richard pulls over the van and stops, and Dwayne bolts out of the van and down a hill into a barren field, and for the first time breaks his vow of silence. He lands on the ground and yells his distress. Above him on the side of the hill is the van, and his family standing in a row, and above them is the blue beyond. I'm sure the filmmakers were hoping for a jet contrail to appear. It would have been perfect. (Wait, maybe that's exactly what is in the blue sky behind them?!) Sheryl comes down the hill to comfort him and try to get him back in the van. But Dwayne, fully embracing the selfish side of the moral premise proclaims how he hates the family for a whole litany of reasons and how he's not ever getting back in the van. All is lost, it seems, and they may leave him there in the wilderness of his own choosing. (Nietzsche would be proud.) But Olive ventures down the steep incline to talk to Dwayne. She kneels next to him. (Kneeling could be come a visual motif of this movie.) Silence. And then -- simply puts her arm around him, and rests her head on his shoulder. They don't move for a while, and then Dwayne, says "OK, let's go." They walk up the hill, and Dwayne speaks clearly through tears of sadness:
DWAYNE: I apologize for the things I said. I was upset. I didn't really them.
And in so doing, Dwayne thinks of his sister, and the others, and embraces the truth of the moral premise. (Amazing what the act of kneeling can do and mean.)

It might be noted, that in the previous sequence, Dwayne was beginning to see the needs of others as more important. In the hospital waiting room, after the family learns of Grandpa's passing, he writes a note to Olive, "Go hug Mom." Olive does. Now, Olive follows Dwayne's advice again, and hugs him. No words are spoken. My wife was reminded of Saint Francis of Assisi's commission to his companions, "Go and preach the Gospel everywhere, and if necessary, use words." (Although, I think following St. Francis DeSale's tactics of chasing after people and yelling the Gospel at them in a loud voice, can also have a positive effect. In DeSale's situation it helped to convert most of Southern France.)

Sheryl's moment of grace seems to be every time she makes a decision to help the family attain it's goals. When Richard is distraught over losing the book deal she finally gets back in the van, but does so, for Olive's sake. When Richard decides to steal Grandpa's body from the hospital, she hesitates, and then pitches in. She's thinking, it's good for Grandpa and for Olive, and she's supporting her husband's need to persevere and be a winner, as newly defined by Grandpa when he tells Richard he's proud of Richard for trying what others would not.

Finally, Olive's moment of grace comes at the end of the movie when she has a chance of backing out of the contest when she recognizes, as well as the rest of her family, that to go on stage and do anything would be humiliating at best. She's not beauty queen material...meaning she doesn't have the external beauty or talent that the other little girls have. She is given the option to compete or walk out. She decides to go through with it, and the results are disastrous. She embarrasses nearly everyone by doing a mock, bump & grind, strip-tease to the tune her late Grandpa picked out titled: "She's a Super Freak." Not only is Grandpa repudiated for teaching her the routine, but the pageant organizer tries to get Olive off stage, to no avail, and then calls on Richard to drag his daughter off. But when Richard walks on stage to get Olive, he's so proud of her for her courage, it's as if Grandpa's words are being repeated:
GRANDPA: You tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people would ever do...You took a big chance. It took guts and I'm proud of you.
And so Richard begins to dance, mockingly, with his daughter, and soon, the whole family joins them on stage.

It is immaterial that they are escorted to the security office and told they can leave (without being arrested and charged) if they promise never again to enter Olive in a California beauty contest. To which Frank replies:
FRANK: I think we can live with that.
Now, there are at least two ways to read Olive's decision to compete, and they both reinforce the moral premise. If we read it as her pride wanting to do her own selfish thing, we see it ending in near catastrophe as a competitor. She doesn't just lose the contest, she's nearly jailed. She's tested the negative side of the moral premise and it holds true.

But the other way to read her decision is this: She decides to compete because the rest of her family have sacrificed so much to give her this chance, and she wants to do it, selflessly, for them. After all, she promised her Dad that she was going to win, and then she dedicates the dance to her Grandpa for his love and encouragement, albeit a bit skewed. By competing, regardless of the odds, she fulfills the words of virtuous pride that Grandpa said to Richard by trying something most people never do.

But there is a more important aspect of the ending that my writing partner, Bill Wiitala, pointed out. Olive's bump-'n-grind is done out of an innocent heart for the sake of her family who have sacrificed so much for her. She and her family realize that the "beauty contest" that IS worth competing in, is one of selflessness, sacrifice, and suffering. The "beauty contest" that is of value is one of inner beauty and love. If Olive is going to suffer embarrassment, then the whole family will share in her suffering and lift her up. Opposing this concept is the importance of external beauty, a fake and put-on beauty, attended to by pushy stage-moms, sprayed on tans, fake smiles, and jaded attitudes. What the mothers of the little miss competitors hold up as important will be celebrated later in life by the biker dudes in adult strip clubs. So, there is this eloquent irony at the movie's end where Olive's bump-'n-grind satirizes what the little miss pageant is "really" about. It's a movie moment where a "strip-tease" means just the opposite of physical seduction. It is, in fact, a seduction of the inner heart.

ALL WINNERS

In many ways Little Miss Sunshine is a love story between father and daughter, and how the whole family learns to honor that love by sacrificing themselves for that love's endearment. They all start out as losers, but by movie's end, and because of the dysfunction and suffering, have put aside their selfish desires and replaced them with the interest of others. In that way the movies ends with the Hoover family being all winners, happy, and a bit less dysfunctional.

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE

Little Miss Sunshine(2006, R, 101 min.)

Directed
by Jonathan Dayton &
Valerie Faris
Written by Michael Arndt

Abigail Breslin...Olive

Greg Kinnear...Richard
Paul Dano...Dwayne
Alan Arkin...Grandpa
Toni Collette...Sheryl
Steve Carell...Frank


Little Miss Sunshine is the deservedly R-rated, road-trip movie of the Hoovers, a dysfunctional family, as they take their homely and plumb, 7-year-old Olive from their New Mexico home to a "Little Miss" beauty pageant in California. The story asks the question: What is a "winner" and what is a "loser."

This is not a movie I would recommend for purposes of entertainment because of the vulgarity, and general dysfunctional skewyness. It's not "family" entertainment, although it may be about a more typical American family than I'm willing admit. But it is a film that can ironically play a role in helping to promote vitreous moral values. The movie was made for about $8M, and as of this writing has grossed about $60M. It has also garnered a good many awards, with 4 Academy nominations, including Best Picture. Certainly this movie connects with a good many people in America. So, I offer these observations about the film's moral premise.

THE CHARACTERS

The drama and comedy come from the desperately different and unattainable goals each of the main character has inappropriately latched onto. In their unique ways, each is a "looser" as the world would define it—none are at the top of their chosen games, and each could easily vie for last place.

OLIVE dreams of being a beauty queen, although she has little talent, and a rotund body. She repeatedly watches beauty pageants on a DVD, and practices being surprised at winning. We are told she rehearses her talent that Grandpa has taught her. Although, no one has seen her "talent," which is saved for the film's climax. Happenstance puts her into the final running of a distant once-in-a-life-time little miss pageant 2 days drive away, and circumstances force the entire clan into a yellow VW bus for the trip.

RICHARD, the clan's father, dreams of being a motivational speaker with this "9-steps" that will supposedly take any loser and turn him or her into a winner. But Richard, unfortunately, has barely achieved Step 3, although he is bargaining for a book deal that he hopes will put him in the national limelight. Someone should tell him that they throw "lime" on corpses.

DWAYNE, is the disgruntled 15-year old, who reads Nietzsche, says he hates everyone, and has taken a vow of silence until he can get in the Air Force Academy and learn to fly jets.

GRANDPA, is the vulgar, self-proclaimed playboy, with a heroin habit and Nazi bullets hidden in his body. He encourages Dwayne to bed as many women as he can, and fancies himself as the loving role model and pageant talent coach for Olive. We can't wait to see what Grandpa has taught Olive. On second thought, you can wait -- a life time.

SHERYL, is the stressed out mom who smokes in secret. Because movies have no smell, this works. Sheryl's goal is for the family to love each other and for her and Richard to have a normal married relationship. This goal is actually one that is worth not only rooting for, but is possible. In fact, Sheryl's goal (and character) is the only one that is not quirky, and perhaps for good reason.

Who's left? Oh, yeah, how could we forget UNCLE FRANK. And we shouldn't forget Uncle Frank, who is put under the care of his sister, Sheryl, while he emotionally recovers from an attempted wrist-slashing suicide. Why did he try to kill himself, asks Olive. Well, as Frank tries to explain to the innocent Olive, he fell in love with a male graduate student who ran off with his academic competitor and No. 2 Proust (prust) Scholar in America, who also beat out Frank for a Rockefeller Fellowship, and all of that resulted in Frank being fired from the university.
RICHARD: Who's the No. 1 Proust Scholar, Frank.
FRANK: I am, Richard.
PROUST VS. NIETZSCHE
Before we can discuss the Moments of Grace and the story's moral premise, it's necessary to set up the underlying conflict of values as articulated in the writings of French novelist and essayist Marcel Proust (d. 1922), and German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (d. 1900). As mentioned above, Uncle Frank is a Proust scholar, and he's paired up with his Nietzsche reading, vow-of-silence nephew, Dwayne. This is not just a superficial pairing, because slivers of Proust and Nietzsche thinking about the meaning of suffering articulate what this move is really about.

The Nietzsche sliver used by LMS's writer Michael Arndt is the absence of a moral transcendence -- e.g. man must create his own moral standards. Nietzsche is the philosopher that announced "God is Dead," and on Dwayne's T-Shirt the inscription, which is slowly revealed, reads: "Jesus was Wrong." Nietzsche, it could be argued, is one of modernity's father's of moral relativism. He dies insane in 1900, only to be picked up, morphed, and canonized by Adolph Hitler for emboldening the Third Reich reign of terror. For Nietzsche, the suffering he experiences is mental. There is no happiness for Nietzsche, only the hope of a superman, eternal re-occurrence, and the will to power—the three themes, by the way, of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, one of my favorite films.

On the other hand, the philosophical sliver from Proust is that out of a lifetime of suffering we can find happiness; or coming from another direction, it is the experiences of suffering throughout life that bring meaning and allow us to know happiness. Personally, for Proust the suffering was physical that forced him to spend the last three years of his life in a corked-lined bedroom writing his magnum opus—a seven volume novel translated variedly but most recently as In Search of Lost Time. It is perhaps the longest novel ever written, and some claim the best. Those that make a lifetime of its study are called Proust Scholars.

Dwayne and Frank, therefore, are like contrary but similarly lost souls who are the movie's Greek Choruses. They are like dueling philosophers, who on the end of a pier overlooking an unpredictable, deep and dark ocean, try to analyze the human condition and find meaning in man's sufferings.

When the movie begins each of the Hoover clan is unhappy, except for the hopeful Olive when she's invited to the pageant. The source of their sadness is the self-indulgent, moral relativism that dominates their lives. It is as if Dwayne's larger than life-size bed-sheet painting of Nietzsche that hangs on his bedroom wall, has brought a curse to the household, so that each member reeks with a passion to seek their own way regardless of anyone else's needs. And like Nietzsche, each character fails in their life's pursuit and falls into a suffering despair.

SPOILER'S FOLLOW

Sheryl's dream of a functional family is lost to her harried permissiveness.

Richard's deal for a book falls through, because he's a nobody.

Frank's lover, fellowship award, and job are lost, turning him to suicide.

Dwayne's goal of being a jet pilot crashes, when he discovers he's color blind.

Olive's dream of being a beauty queen is dashed by a lack of knowledge and talent

And Grandpa's goal of being Olive's hero and coach is cut short by death from an overdose.

Each of these failures has its root in Nietzsche's claim that there is no transcendent morality, although we can be called to achieve "superman" status even as each of us finds their own moral way. Dwayne hates his self-described "hell" of waiting to get through high school. He says to Frank at the end of the pier:
DWAYNE: You know what? Fuck beauty contests. Life is one fucking beauty contest after another. School, then college, then work. Fuck that. And fuck the Air Force Academy. If I want to fly, I'll find a way to fly. You do what you love, and fuck the rest.
But, of course, it is exactly that worldview that has catapulted Dwayne and the family into their personal and social dysfunctions and sadness.

On the other hand, we find this sliver of Proust's thinking, perhaps selectively plucked from those seven volumes (which I have not read), that speaks of virtue and some hope, and is, quite frankly and perhaps inadvertently, in keeping with Judea-Christian thinking:
Out of life's suffering comes the meaning of life and happiness.
It is as if this concept slowly invades the family along with Frank's invasion. Although Frank may be a Proust scholar he obviously hasn't learned this little tidbit of truth. Perhaps he needed to be couped up with a Nietzsche scholar to understand Proust by comparison. (So much for study in the Proust ghetto.)

Each of our characters has their moment of grace, where they are confronted by that Proust truth, and upon it they must each choose. And it is because the consequences of those choices aligns with our perception of reality, that grounds this film's popularity. These are extreme characters, but they experience reality as we know it is, regardless of the political or social ideology of how we think reality should be. In other words, regardless of our moral relativism, natural law is still boss, and this movie reinforces that truth in an entertaining and arresting way.

THE MORAL PREMISE

While we might argue that Olive is the story's protagonist, she is only the protag by virtue of providing the story's physical motivation of getting her to the pageant in time for registration. (Ticking clocks do work -- and wonderfully in this movie.) But Little Miss Sunshine, I will argue, has six protagonists and each has a Moment of Grace upon which their character's plight swings.

At 31 minutes into the story, the VW's clutch fails and the only way to get to the pageant on time is for everyone to get out and push until the van gets up to a third-gear speed -- and then one-by-one, jump into the van via the side door. The broken down van brings suffering, and out of that suffering everyone puts aside their personal disgruntledness, gets out and pushes, then jumps or are pulled in (no stunt doubles here), and off the van goes down "Carefree Hwy." The result is glee, happiness, and satisfaction...for a while at least, until selfishness sets back in. But the experience points the whole family down the right road, literally and figuratively. Now that they've learned something together, it's time for each to deal with their personal issues one-on-one, and make a choice about the moral premise.

Before we look at the individual MOG's let's decipher the moral premise. Here are some possible ways to state the moral premise for this film based on the conflict of values that Proust (via Frank) and Nietzsche (via Dwayne) bring to the story.

Doing what I want and ignoring the needs of others
leads to dread; but

Doing what others need, putting aside my needs
leads to happiness.


Or, put another way:

Rejection of personal suffering
leads to confusion and sadness; but

The embrace of personal suffering
leads to purpose and happiness.


Or:
Defining success as the attainment of power
leads to sadness; but

Defining success as serving others
leads to happiness.
Or put simply:

Pride leads to failure and sadness; but
Humility leads to success and happiness.

Or, in the movie's vernacular:

Expecting others to alleviate our suffering
leads to losing; but

Alleviating the suffering of others
leads to winning.
MOMENTS OF GRACE

Now, let's look at the moments of grace for each character, to understand how the movie consistently applies the above true moral premise.

Richard's moment of grace is when Stan Grossman tells him (twice) that there is no book deal, because nobody knows who Richard is. Richards is a nobody. Up to this time Richard expected Stan Grossman to provide Richard with prestige and power. When Grossman says no, Richard takes it badly, and Sheryl is also gravely disappointed in putting her trust in Richard's dream as well. But Richard embraces the moral premise's truth, and dedicates himself all the more to getting Olive to the pageant on time. Sheryl, too, follows Richard's lead, and their decision adds to the healing of their relationship. Richard could have rejected the moral premise, and instead of taking off at night to seek his dream and Stan Grossman, Richard could have sacrificed Olive's need and used the family's travel time during the day to try to get his book deal back on track. Richard is determined to persevere in his dream, but for now he puts it aside to serve the needs of Olive.

Grandpa's first moment of grace comes after Richard first rejection by Grossman. Richard, mad, depressed, and after a short argument with Sheryl, gets back in the van and continues to drive. After Dwayne discovers that Olive isn't with them, they go back and pick her up. Then, as they continue to drive, Grandpa comes forward, kneels besides Richard and says to him, with his arm around him as he drives:
GRANDPA: Richard...whatever happens. You tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people would ever do, and I include myself in that category. You took a big chance. It took guts and I'm proud of you.
This is a starling moment for Grandpa, who has been so self-serving up to this point, except for encouraging Olive. This moment on his knees (of humility), and his enthusiasm for pushing the van (selflessness), reveals that down deep he loves his family, and his happiness and virtuous pride comes out of Richard and Sheryl's suffering. It is a moment that also helps Sheryl to heal in her relationship with Richard.

Frank's moment of grace occurs just before the movie begins, as soon as his sister, Sheryl, takes him in. We might say that when he was rejected by so many situations in his life he rejected the moral premise and decided to following the path to sadness, dread, and death. But he's given a second chance, and this time he embraces the moral premise, and tries his best to make things go as smoothly as they can for Sheryl. He sees her suffering, and he's determined to do whatever he's asked to do, and then some to alleviate her suffering. At the beginning of the movie he is definitely that quintessential loser. But by movie's end he's proving himself more and more to be a winner in the eyes of the family.

Grandpa's second moment of grace occurs during the family's first night in a motel. After supposedly coaching Olive on her talent competition and tucking her in bed he goes into the bathroom, locks the door, and snorts some heroin. The next morning, Olive announces to her family that Grandpa won't wake up. At the hospital the family is told Grandpa died. Grandpa chooses the dark side of the moral premise, and tries to alleviate his loser mentality with heroin. It's a selfish act. There was much he could have done to help others, and he was happy when helping to push the van, coach Olive, and encourage Richard. But that wasn't enough for him, and his life ends in tragedy. His family, rallies, however, much as they did when the van's clutch broke. They steal his body out a hospital window, into the back the van for the morning drive to the pageant, where they find a funeral home to take care of Grandpa's remains. In the suffering of Grandpa's death, the family again puts aside their selfish tendencies, and words together for the good of another (e.g. "stealing" Grandpa's remains from an uncaring hospital and a rude bereavement counselor, and helping Olive get to the pageant on time.)

Dwayne's moment of grace comes in the van when Olive gives him an eye-test. When she gets to the color-blindness test, he flunks it. He doesn't know what that means, until Frank tells him he can't fly jets if he's colorblind. Dwayne loses it, and threatens to knock a
hole in the van's roof or sidewall from his sudden distress. Richard pulls over the van and stops, and Dwayne bolts out of the van and down a hill into a barren field, and for the first time breaks his vow of silence. He lands on the ground and yells his distress. Above him on the side of the hill is the van, and his family standing in a row, and above them is the blue beyond. I'm sure the filmmakers were hoping for a jet contrail to appear. It would have been perfect. (Wait, maybe that's exactly what is in the blue sky behind them?!) Sheryl comes down the hill to comfort him and try to get him back in the van. But Dwayne, fully embracing the selfish side of the moral premise proclaims how he hates the family for a whole litany of reasons and how he's not ever getting back in the van. All is lost, it seems, and they may leave him there in the wilderness of his own choosing. (Nietzsche would be proud.) But Olive ventures down the steep incline to talk to Dwayne. She kneels next to him. (Kneeling could be come a visual motif of this movie.) Silence. And then -- simply puts her arm around him, and rests her head on his shoulder. They don't move for a while, and then Dwayne, says "OK, let's go." They walk up the hill, and Dwayne speaks clearly through tears of sadness:
DWAYNE: I apologize for the things I said. I was upset. I didn't really them.
And in so doing, Dwayne thinks of his sister, and the others, and embraces the truth of the moral premise. (Amazing what the act of kneeling can do and mean.)

It might be noted, that in the previous sequence, Dwayne was beginning to see the needs of others as more important. In the hospital waiting room, after the family learns of Grandpa's passing, he writes a note to Olive, "Go hug Mom." Olive does. Now, Olive follows Dwayne's advice again, and hugs him. No words are spoken. My wife was reminded of Saint Francis of Assisi's commission to his companions, "Go and preach the Gospel everywhere, and if necessary, use words." (Although, I think following St. Francis DeSale's tactics of chasing after people and yelling the Gospel at them in a loud voice, can also have a positive effect. In DeSale's situation it helped to convert most of Southern France.)

Sheryl's moment of grace seems to be every time she makes a decision to help the family attain it's goals. When Richard is distraught over losing the book deal she finally gets back in the van, but does so, for Olive's sake. When Richard decides to steal Grandpa's body from the hospital, she hesitates, and then pitches in. She's thinking, it's good for Grandpa and for Olive, and she's supporting her husband's need to persevere and be a winner, as newly defined by Grandpa when he tells Richard he's proud of Richard for trying what others would not.

Finally, Olive's moment of grace comes at the end of the movie when she has a chance of backing out of the contest when she recognizes, as well as the rest of her family, that to go on stage and do anything would be humiliating at best. She's not beauty queen material...meaning she doesn't have the external beauty or talent that the other little girls have. She is given the option to compete or walk out. She decides to go through with it, and the results are disastrous. She embarrasses nearly everyone by doing a mock, bump & grind, strip-tease to the tune her late Grandpa picked out titled: "She's a Super Freak." Not only is Grandpa repudiated for teaching her the routine, but the pageant organizer tries to get Olive off stage, to no avail, and then calls on Richard to drag his daughter off. But when Richard walks on stage to get Olive, he's so proud of her for her courage, it's as if Grandpa's words are being repeated:
GRANDPA: You tried to do something on your own, which is more than most people would ever do...You took a big chance. It took guts and I'm proud of you.
And so Richard begins to dance, mockingly, with his daughter, and soon, the whole family joins them on stage.

It is immaterial that they are escorted to the security office and told they can leave (without being arrested and charged) if they promise never again to enter Olive in a California beauty contest. To which Frank replies:
FRANK: I think we can live with that.
Now, there are at least two ways to read Olive's decision to compete, and they both reinforce the moral premise. If we read it as her pride wanting to do her own selfish thing, we see it ending in near catastrophe as a competitor. She doesn't just lose the contest, she's nearly jailed. She's tested the negative side of the moral premise and it holds true.

But the other way to read her decision is this: She decides to compete because the rest of her family have sacrificed so much to give her this chance, and she wants to do it, selflessly, for them. After all, she promised her Dad that she was going to win, and then she dedicates the dance to her Grandpa for his love and encouragement, albeit a bit skewed. By competing, regardless of the odds, she fulfills the words of virtuous pride that Grandpa said to Richard by trying something most people never do.

But there is a more important aspect of the ending that my writing partner, Bill Wiitala, pointed out. Olive's bump-'n-grind is done out of an innocent heart for the sake of her family who have sacrificed so much for her. She and her family realize that the "beauty contest" that IS worth competing in, is one of selflessness, sacrifice, and suffering. The "beauty contest" that is of value is one of inner beauty and love. If Olive is going to suffer embarrassment, then the whole family will share in her suffering and lift her up. Opposing this concept is the importance of external beauty, a fake and put-on beauty, attended to by pushy stage-moms, sprayed on tans, fake smiles, and jaded attitudes. What the mothers of the little miss competitors hold up as important will be celebrated later in life by the biker dudes in adult strip clubs. So, there is this eloquent irony at the movie's end where Olive's bump-'n-grind satirizes what the little miss pageant is "really" about. It's a movie moment where a "strip-tease" means just the opposite of physical seduction. It is, in fact, a seduction of the inner heart.

ALL WINNERS

In many ways Little Miss Sunshine is a love story between father and daughter, and how the whole family learns to honor that love by sacrificing themselves for that love's endearment. They all start out as losers, but by movie's end, and because of the dysfunction and suffering, have put aside their selfish desires and replaced them with the interest of others. In that way the movies ends with the Hoover family being all winners, happy, and a bit less dysfunctional.

Friday, January 26, 2007

THE ILLUSIONIST

The Illusionist (2006)
Directed & Written by Neil Burger
Steven Millhauser (short story)

STARRING:
Edward Norton - Eisenheim
Paul Giamatti - Inspector Uhl
Jessica Biel - Sophie
Rufus Sewell - Crown Prince Leopold


This is the story of Eisenheim (Norton), a magician in 1900 Vienna, who uses his abilities to secure the love of Sophie (Biel) a woman far above his social standing. It is his and her physical goals from childhood to go off together, or in her vernacular, she asks of him: "Make me disappear."

As a young teen aristocrat, she is forcibly taken away from Eisenheim, when he can't make her disappear from the grown-ups that would control her life. His curse? He's the son of a cabinetmaker, a peasant boy who has a gift for slight-of-hand, magic and supernatural faith. He leaves to travel the world and gain power through his gift. When he returns, now as an acclaimed illusionist, she re-enters his life unexpectedly, and just as disheartening is her engagement to the villainous Austrian Crown Prince Leopold whom she does not love, and who treats her, and those that work for him, harshly. The story is told from the point of view of Vienna's chief police inspector, whose career loyalty is to the crown, but being an amateur magician, he has the greatest respect for Eisenheim. That is what the story is about on a physical level.

But what the story is REALLY about, on the psychological level, is this moral premise:
Faith in the supernatural leads to eternal life; but
Faith in scientific materialism (skepticism) leads to death.
At its very core, every scene and character of The Illusionist, is about the conflict of two opposing values:
  • faith in the spiritual world, and
  • faith in the material world.
As explained in my book The Moral Premise, successful movies are about only ONE thing, but that one thing is explored differently in each of the main characters. In The Illusionist, we have four main characters that represent the center, extremes, the middle ground of the debate of where power resides—in the materialistic realm or the spiritual realm. It is an age old question from the Greeks to modern day. But with the industrial revolution and the grand inventions of 100 years ago, the question was of particular interest in Europe, where this story takes place. Let's now look at our charaters and see how they interact with the moral premise.

EISENHEIM is the quintessential illusionist who represents the spiritual side of existence. He is like a priest who is endowed with the supernatural power to enact sacraments, bind or loose, judge the faithful and the skeptics, and rewarding each with eternal life or eternal death. Eternity, of course, has a great deal to do with time -- or perhaps the lack of it. Set Eisenheim up with the moral premise, at one performance he tells his audience:
I would like to continue with an examination of time. From the moment we enter this life we are in the flow of it. We measure it and we mock it, but we cannot defy it. We cannot even speed it up or slow it down. Or can we? Have we not each experienced the sensation that a beautiful moment seemed to pass to quickly, and wished that we could make it linger? Or felt time slow on a dull day, and wished that we could speed things up a bit?
His comments are a foreshadowing of his next more direct ascent to the spiritual meaning of life and death. In another performance with the Crown Prince's entourage in attendance, he bates his audience, and sends the movie reeling down an inevitable path:
I thought we might end this evening with a discussion of the soul. All the greatest religions speak of the soul's endurance beyond the end of life. So, what do you think it means to die? I need a volunteer from the audience -- someone not afraid of death.
And it is at this moment that we are introduced to the two characters that represent the extremes of the moral premise's application. It is, of course, two characters that are intertwined with each other, and who place Eisenheim between them.

Responding to Eisenheim's challenge, the CROWN PRINCE stands, as if to volunteer. But of course, as we will discover, he is afraid of both life and death—he is a quintessential skeptic. So he offers up his finance, SOPHIE, who we will discover is not afraid of life or death—she is the quintessential believer, especially in Eisenheim whom she knows to possess a special connection with what is really true.

Neil Burger, the writer and director tells us on his DVD commentary track:
The crown Prince is a complete skeptic and he doesn't want to admit there is any greater power than his own. The crown Prince can't stand anyone or thing that has a power greater than his own. He can't stand any kind of superstition or religion. It diminishes his own power.
Somewhere in between the skeptic Prince, and the magician-priest is Vienna's chief inspector, UHL. The movie is told from his perspective, as he tries to discover, for the audience, where the real power lies. Uhl, like the Prince, likes to have scientific explanation for everything, but he also enjoys mystery -- he is the head of investigations for the city. Uhl's perspective is how it is with the common man; and so the audience easily identifies with Uhl and his search for meaning and truth. As the story moves along we find Uhl moving toward spiritualism and at other times moving toward materialism. For us, he is always asking: "Can the sacramental powers of the priest-magician be explained or are we to take them on faith, a fiat, if you will?"

Leading up to a fateful Moment of Grace (MOG), Eisenheim is invited to a command performance. The Prince introduces Eisenheim and announcing to his audience a paraphrase of the moral premise by saying that Eisenheim...
...has reportedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for holy power...Fear not, everything can and will be explained -- all mysteries penetrated.
And his audience claps in approval of scientific materialism.

MOMENTS OF GRACE

Eisenheim merges the steel of scientific materialism (the Prince's sword) with the power of spiritualism, an astonishing sword trick that challenges the Prince's divine right to rule both the country and Sophie's heart. The Prince is embarrassed in front of his friends, and comes upon his own MOG, choosing to embrace materialism and dismisses the supernatural. To some, Eisenheim has made a foolish choice to confront the Prince, but, just perhaps, Eisenheim has only played only the first of many face cards in his hand. Within moments the Prince whispers to the Inspector Uhl to get rid of Eisenheim.

But to fully engage the story, Eisenheim and Sophie also must come to their MOG.

After the command performance, late at night, Sophie comes to Eisenheim in secret and they proclaim their love to each other. He asks her to come away with him. But for her to leave the Prince for Eisenheim would be certain death for both of them. Will they succumb to the seduction of materialism and power (they have just made love), or will they give in to the mystery of their love and the supernatural lure of eternal live. He ponders the truth of the moral premise, and then comes upon his own Moment of Grace, and forces Sophie to hers as well.
EISENHEIM
Look at me. Do you truly want to leave with me?

Sophie raises up and with full awareness of the possible consequence of her answer.

SOPHIE
Yes. -- I do.
Her simple statement is like both the commitment of a bride during a wedding, and the Virgin's Mary's fiat to Gabriel. It is a simple, assured yes, but it reflects the deep faith she has in this worker of supposed miracles dispite the difficult road ahead. It is 48 minutes into a 90 minute movie. The MOG for the protagonist is usually in the middle.

From this moment on, Eisenheim's goal (to recapture his love with Sophie from childhood) is the same, but the method will be the grand illusion, not the parlor tricks. The grand illusion will involve grand misdirection and the full use of all his "sacramental" powers. As we will see, Sophie's childhood wish "make me disappear" now takes on a new twist. Because, recall, she is unafraid of death, and it is in eternity that time can be slowed in order to enjoy those moments of grace. Thus, it becomes Eisenheim's goal to usher the two of them into paradise.

Indeed Eisenheim does make Sophie disappear, (an homage to Romeo and Juliet) if only to make her reappear in several Marian-like apparitions. Like Mary's appearance, Sophie's purpose is to convinces the populace that the spiritual may be very real indeed, and not to accept the Prince's scientific materialism, dread, paranoia, and harshness it will bring.

It is the magician-priest who calls on the supernatural to persuade the populace that there is a spiritual side to our existence. As the populace begins to embrace that truth, the Prince's future is threatened, because the Prince's source of knowledge and power—scientific materialism—is threatened. To drive this home to the audience Burger drops us in on a Spiritualist leader who lectures a gathering. We fervor the old man proclaims:
With these spirits, these manifestation, Eisenheim has give us hard proof of the soul's immortality. The spirit has been reaffirmed in the face of modern scientific materialism. The work of spiritualism will evolve humanity to new moral earnestness....
And then one of Url's investigators finishes the leader's remarks in a report to Uhl:
...It is a revolutionary movement and we will turn the empire into a spiritual republic.
The mystery of the supernatural directly challenges scientific materialism, as does a burgeoning democracy challenges the emperor's successor.

By the way, in real life, it is the skeptic that takes his own life. No once chooses it but the skeptic himself.

Let me finish up with this comment from Burger on the DVD's commentary track.
The role of the magician is to remind us of the mystery of existence, and to inspire awe and wonder of that mystery. Something in the universe is more powerful than all man's achievements. Even if it is a trick, there's that one moment when we feel that the magician does have some kind of power that reminds us of what it's like to look at the night's sky and wonder what are we doing here, where do we come from, and where is all this going?
And that is what The Illusionist is really about:
Faith leads to eternal life; but
Skepticism leads to death.

Friday, January 19, 2007

WORLD TRADE CENTER

World Trade Center
(2006, Theatrical Docudrama, PG-13, 1 hr 59 min)

Directed by Oliver Stone

Written by Andrea Berloff
based on the true stories of John & Donna McLoughlin and William & Allison Jimeno

Starring:
Nicolas Cage (John)
Maria Bello (Donna)
Michael Pena (Will)
Maggie Gyllenhaal (Allison)
Michael Shannon (Karnes)


THE PHYSICAL STORY
World Trade Center is a docudrama about the survival and rescue of two New York Port Authority Cops, one a veteran Sergeant John McLoughlin (Nicolas Cage) and the other a rookie, William Jimeno (Michael Pena), who are caught under the rubble of the World Trade Center towers' collapse on September 11, 2001. The movie, is also about the emotional battle fought by their wives Donna McLoughlin (Maria Bello) and Allison Jimeno (Maggie Gyllenhaal), and the Marine that discovered them, Dave Karnes (Michael Shannon).

In short strokes the men go to work early on the morning of September 11, 2001 as police officers assigned to the Manhattan bus terminal, but soon are called to go downtown as part of a larger team to the Trade Center Towers to rescue survivors. After they arrive, the buildings collapse, entombing the men, most of which die. John and Will barely survive. After 18 and 24 hours respectfully, they are rescued, and are reunited with their wives and family, albeit after long medical recoveries. As the movie follows the men's journey toward death and then toward life, it also follows the women's journey toward dread and then hope.

THE PSYCHOLOGICAL STORY
While the physical elements of any story surrounding 9/11 are likely to be about harrowing physical events of heroes and victims, World Trade Center is substantially a psychological adventure. For most of the movie the physically active Nicolas Cage of movies such as Gone in 60 Seconds, National Treasure, and Ghost Rider—is buried is rubble and dust, that we see only part of his face; Michael Pena is similarly challenged with his character. We are left with their psychological wits, albeit enhanced with further building collapses, fireballs, death, and trauma. The women, in traversing their emotional journey at least can move about their homes and neighborhoods, but their nemesis is the dread that the husbands, to whom they have a strong bond, might be dead. The men in their hole, and the women in their homes — both seemingly trapped without recourse — battle for hope, life, and a return to the happiness they had but had taken for granted.

Depending on how you want to "read" the film, there are two moral premises. In broad storytelling terms, you have hateful villains and loving heroes that lead to a moral premise like this:
Hate leads to death; but
Love leads to life.
It is the hate of the terrorists and leads to the thousands of death that day; but it is the love of New Yorkers that rally and bring lives and the city back to life.

But as one of the movie's tag lines says this:
The World Saw Evil That Day. Two Men Saw Something Else.
That is a hint that this movie is about something more important still. I think this film is really about this MORAL PREMISE:
Taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to death and despair; but

Not taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to life and hope.

HOW THE MORAL PREMISE IS REVEALED
The first half of the film shows us what can happen when we take certain things for granted.

On a national scope we could conclude that until 9/11 the country took its freedom and safety for granted. America was not prepared for such an attack. It assumed that distance from its belligerent enterprises, and current level of intelligence gathering, had ensured safety. Indeed the movie begins with the Burke and Dunn song Only in America, which heralds America's overconfidence that:
Only in America, where we dream as big as we want to
We all get a chance, everybody gets to dance -- only in America
...all [we] want is everything
It is a song that bespeaks of our taking our freedom for granted.

We also see how individuals in America have taken their good lives for granted. The movie begins with John getting up from bed at 3:29 AM. He says nothing to his wife, Donna laying in bed next to him. As he gets up he doesn't even look at her. Although awake, she is turned away from him and does not speak or move. John dutifully prepares for work, looks in on his four sleeping children, then drives to Manhattan for work. In this small but significant way we see how John and Donna take each other for granted and do not savor the moments they have together. Later this scene is reprised with a different outcome, as both learn the importance of seizing important moments in their lives.

A montage introduces us to New York City's morning, which is like many others...until terror strikes when the first airliner flies into one of the World Trade Towers. Suddenly, dread strikes everyone, even the police force.

With fear and trepidation John is asked to lead a team to the disaster site to rescue survivors. It's a mission for which they've never trained. Like many law enforcement organizations across the country, they have taken for granted their safety and freedom, never imagining that this situation would ever occur.

Before they get to the building they're supposed to enter, the first tower collapses, and they're trapped in the rubble near an elevator shaft. Their predicament is made worse with a second and third building collapse, and the death of their comrades.

It seems to us and to John and Will that they too are destined to die.

In fact the rest of the country and the world have taken the radical Islamic threat for granted, assuming they could not attack the West successful, even though the history of the West's conflict with Islamic terrorism is hundreds of years old. We forget Europe and America's 30 year conflict with the Barbary Pirates of Algeria, Tunis, and Tripoli from 1785 to 1815, a 30 year period of piracy that saw U.S. citizens killed, taken hostage and the U.S. paying extortion to protect its shipping. A tactics that didn't work and wasn't solved until President Jefferson attempted and President Madison succeeded to engage America's fledging navy (right after the War of 1812) to sail to the Mediterranean and put an end to centuries old terrorism.

Despite this sort of history, America and New York City, as is much of the world are in a state of shock as we see with montages and interludes of cops in Wisconsin, an accounting firm in Connecticut, and people watching the events from around the world. The shock and feelings of helplessness and dread are the result of taking or safety for granted.

Through the first half of the story there is an acceptance of fate — a taking for granted that even when disaster strikes, there is little we can do to fix it, and we take our government for granted, rather than trying to fix things ourselves.

That is definitely the attitude of Donna McLoughlin, John's wife. Even after her husband is likely trapped in the rubble, she busies herself with household duties to take her minds off the tragedy, and more to the point, try not to get the children upset that somehow their father may be dead. She is play-acting at taking-for-granted, trying to act as if everything will be all right, or that others will handle the situation.

Allison, Will's wife, who is 5 months pregnant with their second child, is ill prepared emotionally. Will's new to the force and she, too, has taken for granted his safety. But now, she vomits.

That same attitude pervades the hole. Will and John talk about the waves of pain. Will asks John how long the internal bleeding takes to kill them. Both of them accept their fate, they take their situation for granted, and don't believe they can change anything.

THE MOMENT OF GRACE
53 min into the 1 hr. 59 min. story


It is at this point that Will makes a decision that alters their lives. Rather than taking their situation for granted and dying in the hole, he remembers the story of a little girl in Turkey who survived being trapped in an Earthquake's rubble for 4 days. He says to John: "If she can make it so can we." It is that moral decision by Will that changes the direction the movie is headed.

Looking beyond his immediate surroundings, Will sees a loose pipe that drips water near him. The drip of water is life. But when he can't pull the pipe close enough he lets the pipe slip, creating a loud noise that reverberates through the rubble pile. John hears it, and tells Will to keep it up. It will be a beacon to their rescuers. No longer are they taking their situation for granted.

At that moment John has a vision or dream of the time he and Donna discovered that they were pregnant with their first child. It is a special moment, and he does not fail to shower her with attention.

The next scene is back to real time. Donna and John's son (J.J.) challenges his mom to do something and not just stay around the house as if she didn't care. He challenges his mom not to take anything for granted, and to go to the city to look for John. The question is asked, "Why stay alive to come back to a routine?" The routine, here, substitutes for taking life for granted. After J.J. storms off, Donna laments to a friend, "I don't remember the last thing I said to John." She is sorry for taking John for granted, and not savoring her last moment with him.

The fourth time the story returns to the hole, guilt sets in for the men -- although the snapping of the pipe is a signal to the audience that these guys have hope. They begin to move past themselves and think of their families, verbally this time. Will blames himself for the death of their cohort nearby, and John takes the blame upon himself as the group leader. In the words of director, Oliver Stone, "They see how small and selfish they are." Selfishness here substitutes for taking others for granted.

Suddenly the third building implodes, and the rain of debris is so bad that they are sure they are going to die. John begins to yell out the Lords prayer at the top of his lungs. We hear the phrases "deliver us from evil" "forgive our trespasses" the clearest. John is not taking his salvation for granted. During that same moment Will is calling out for his family and little girl, Bianca.

When the threat passes, John has a vision of waking up like he did at the beginning of the movie, but this time, instead of taking Donna for granted, he turns over and pulls her into her arms. It is a vision or a memory (we don't know which) that gives John hope.

Earlier we met David Karnes, an accountant in Connecticut who upon seeing the tragedy on television, talks to his pastor and prayers about what he should do. Quickly he sets off for the city. And, now, we see David Karnes walking toward the field of rubble when others firefighters and police are being turned away. He will not take his country's freedom for granted.

Donna discovers John's woodworking, as if it was for the very first time. She lovingly touches the tools; and she envisions John working with J.J. showing him how to use a saw. She can't take his gifts or love for the family for granted. She has to stop complaining that in the middle of his kitchen-remodeling project, she has no cabinets in the kitchen.

In the hole Will has a vision of Jesus who holds out a bottle of water to him. Jesus says nothing, but we remember Jesus' words to the Samarian Women, "Whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life." (John 4:14) Will tells John he's seen a vision of Jesus "Jesus is telling us something. He's telling us to come home."

The first thought of that line might be in reference to coming home to heaven, but just a few minutes before little Bianca asks her mother Alison, "is Daddy coming home?" and afterwards in a vision John has, Donna is tilling him to get unstuck and home, the kids need you." to which John replies, "No, I need you." Home, here, is the one on earth, and Will is recharged with hope.

After Will is pulled to safety, it will take another 8 hours to get John out. While John waits he has a vision of Donna there in the hole with him, she's encouraging him to get unstuck and finish remodeling the kitchen. Will remembers cuddling with Alison and trying to decide what to call the new baby.
Both men had good marriages.
I don't think they would have survived if they had bad marriages.
—Oliver Stone
His first is on the hospital gurney when he first sees Donna he says:
You kept me alive.
Two years later at a picnic, John holds Donna close and says:
If she wasn't here I wouldn't be here.
Then, at the picnic, Will turns around and calls to a small child:
Olivia, you comin'?
And a very happy little girl runs to Will's arms and he lifts her up high with glee.

Finally, the film takes us to David Karnes who decides he's not returning to work, but instead signs up for two tours of duty to Iraq. He is not going to take our country's freedom for granted.

In all these ways the movie is really about the moral premise:
Taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to death and despair; but

Not taking the love of our family and country for granted
leads to life and hope.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

CHARLOTTE'S WEB (2006) Post 1 of 1: Praise

Charlotte's Web (2006, Theatrical, 1 hr 26 min -- my timing, I don't count the front bumpers or the credits.)



Director: Gary Winick



Starring: Dakota Fanning and the voices of Julia Roberts, Steve Buscemi, John Cleese, Oprah Winfrey and others)



Tag Line: Help Is Coming From Above

[This is the first of four blog posts on this movie. All follow in reverse-blog order.]

Praise

Before I discuss this wonderful film, I must give it praise.

FIRST, the movie stays faithful to the book, which has been a favorite for several generations. After watching the film for the second time this week, I read the book. It took only a little longer to read than it did to watch, although, granted this time I was not reading it aloud to my children. (This past summer, during or sail cruise, Charlotte's Web was the story read to the grandkids by their mothers each night before turning in...and yes, the grownups listened in with as much, if not more, interest than the kids.)

SECOND, I appreciate E.B. White's diligence at teaching his readers about the facts of life and words. It is not a bifurcation but a unification of all things physical and psychological.

THIRD, the movie takes the turning points in the book and plays them out nearly word for word. (And words are important to what this story is about.) Some critics have panned the movie for not updating the 1952 story by including contemporary slang and revising the story for the inane sake of being "creative" or "anti-establishment" or something else cockeyed. For me, such reviewers are irrelevant. The original story, and the movie, through the mission of Walden Media, is to improve literacy among children. I'm all for updating myths and things that need it, but not when we're recreating something so endearing as an E.B. White story, nor when the purpose is to encourage reading skills and literacy. Changing the "words" --- especially when words are an essential part of the plot, is just, well, ah....stupid.

FOURTH, the casting is perfect.

FIFTH, Fern has a more dominant role than in the book. This is an improvement, I think. It will help children identify more with the characters in the story, and with the importance of imagination and storytelling.

SIXTH, the animation (mostly of animals' lips from live-action footage) is suburb. Where larger elements (Wilbur's flip, and Charlotte spinning her web) are involved, the effects are seamless and stunning on a large screen. (A film for big screen theaters, not small screen TVs.) It's just a joy. I could watch the segments of Charlotte webbing, for hours, so intricate and fabulous is the detail that the animators took—you can see the love of their work in every frame. When Charlotte steps on a piece of hay, for instance, the hay gives, or bends. We also see in the animated segments, a true depth of field. When the camera is on an extreme closeup of Charlotte's "face" the back of her abdomen is out of focus, just as it would be if we were using a macro lens in real photography. This enhances the "real feel" of the visuals, and allows us to identify with the characters so much more.

SEVENTH, the directing is transparent, which is a great compliment. We are not taken off on tangents, or creative whims. We are told the story, beautifully. Thank you Mr. Winick, for allowing Mr. White's vision to prevail.

COMING UP:
Post 2: Charlotte's Web: A Christ Myth
Post 3: Charlotte's Web: Pro-Life Themes
Post 4: The Moral Premise and Moment of Grace

CHARLOTTE'S WEB (2006) Post 2 of 4: A Christ Myth

A CHRIST MYTH

Aside from the explicitly mentioned moral values in the dialogue and narration (friendship, compassion, kindness, loyalty, etc), there are a good many aspects of the film that are mythic representations of the story of Jesus Christ. In this way, Charlotte's Web is a myth that subliminally reminds us of, and passes on truths from the story of Christ.

Now, many people will misunderstand what I mean by "myth." There are many who connote the word "myths" with "falsehoods" and even "evil." But in this case, a myth is a story that passes on something that is true. A myth story does not necessarily pass on truths about what happens in the story's visual realm, but it does pass on truths about things in the invisible realm, e.g. values. I keep pointing to J.R.R. Tolkien's essay On Fairy Stories to undo the "false" notion some have about myths. Tolkien disliked the anagogical stories of close friend C.S. Lewis. The reasons for Tolkien's dislike were these: (a) Allegories always breakdown at some point, and (b) too much time is spent by the reader trying to match up the "true" story with the "allegory" that the truth or point of the story is lost.

A good myth creates "types" and "likenesses" from the true story and incorporates them into original fantasy or story. In this way, the connections and types are loose enough to entice and subliminally involve the reader or viewer, but not so much to distract the reader because nothing matches up perfectly.

In that way Charlotte's Web The Movie (and to a lesser degree the book) is a Christ Myth. There are many "types" in Charlotte's Web that will resonate with the Nativity and other stories of Christ, but not so much that we can't enjoy Charlotte's Web for a story that stands on its own.

Before I launch into the list, I have to reinforce that this is NOT an allegory, and things will NOT line up with the story of Christ as people know it. These are "types." That is, they are very subliminal pointers of other things (physical and psychological or spiritual) that Christians hold to be true. Remember that, please.

Let me enumerate those that I have seen, but in doing so...
NOTE: I do not imply that E.B White or the producers of the movie included any of these elements consciously. A great many of such comparisons can be found in many classic stories because, I suspect, these elements are universal truths that resonate with the human condition, and the particular "myth" story and the Christ story share those elements in common.
A. Wilbur is born a lowly pig, whose primary purpose in life is to die to feed others -- bacon and pork. Most of us love bacon and pork. Christ came as a lowly human, whose primary purpose was to die to give us life, and to feed us spiritual bread. Most of us should love the bread of life he provides.

B. Wilbur is born in a stable, and lives in the basement of a barn. Now, if you remember the book, the startling characteristic of the barn's basement is that it's warm and moist. What from? Fresh droppings of manure. In the book there's a lullaby that Charlotte sings to Wilbur with the repeated line "Deep, deep, in the dung and the dark." Christ was born in a stable, and although it's not mentioned in Scriptures, it was lowly enough, and probably warm and moist from manure.

C. Wilbur eats from a manger. The Christ child slept in a manger.

D. Wilbur draws attention from those beyond the farm because of a web, hanging from what Wilbur later titles the "Hallowed Doorway". The web looks like a star and in the movie there are a couple of shots where the sun's orb is positioned behind the web's center. In the Nativity story, as popularly told, wise men follow a star that hangs over the stable where Christ can be found. Just as there is a crowd of people come to see Wilbur in his barn, so there are many who come to see Christ is his stable.

E. In Charlotte's web are words, that are proclamations or prophecies about the lowly but miraculous pig below. In the Nativity story the star is a proclamation and a prophecy of something miraculous in a lowly stable below.

F. In the book, and implied in the movie, the minister in his sermon explains the words in Charlotte's web this way "words on the web proved that human beings must always be on the watch for the coming of wonders." In the Nativity story, the wise men were on the watch for wonders as announced by the star.

G. Shortly after Wilbur is born, Mr. Arable takes an ax and is about to take Wilbur off to be killed. Shortly after Christ's birth Herod sends his minions out to take the life of Christ.

H. In the movie, Fern, the angel that she is, objects to killing Wilbur as a great injustice and thus protects Wilbur's life. In the Nativity story, an angel warns Joseph in a dream of the injustice about to be done with Herod's slaughter of the innocents.

I. In the movie the smokehouse sits ever present on a hill near the barn, as a reminder that the pig's life has an end at the hands of humans. In the story of Christ, Golgotha sits ever present on a hill near the city that awaits Christ's death at the hands of humans.

J. Charlotte looks down from above and is omniscient. One of the movie's tag lines is "Help Is Coming From Above." In the story of Christ, God looks down from above and is omniscient, and it is Christ that is sent as help from above. A tag line for the Bible could be: "Help is Coming From Above."

K. In the movie (and the book) Wilbur escapes his home and chases after the school bus on which Fern rides to get an education. Wilbur soon returns, obediently, because that is where food, shelter, and his friends are. In the Christ story Jesus "escapes" to the temple, a religious school. He soon returns, obediently, to his home with his parents.

L. In the movie, Wilbur looks like an ordinary pig, but his life is miraculous. In the Christ story, Jesus looks like an ordinary man, but his life is miraculous.

M. In the movie, the narrator tells us that Somerset County is an ordinary place with ordinary people and animals, except that "here a little girl did something that would change everything." In the story of Jesus, a young woman, Mary, lived in an ordinary village except she would do something that would change everything.

N. In the movie, Fern cares for Wilbur over whom the threat of death is constantly present. In the Nativity story, Mary cares for Jesus over whom the threat of death is constantly present.

O. In the movie, it is Wilbur's respect for the beauty of all life (even ugly spiders), which brings a greater degree of grace to Somerset County. In the Christ story, it is Christ's respect for all kinds of people, no matter their heritage or race, which brings a greater degree of grace to mankind.

P. In the movie, what appears ordinary, is quite miraculous. Jesus Christ appeared to many as quite ordinary. But he was quite miraculous.

Q. Charlotte prays over her food before she drinks its life giving blood. Her action is an offense to most in the barn at first. But Wilbur and his friends come to understand that it is Charlotte that keeps the pesky flies and other insects from being worse. A priest prays over the gifts before Catholics drink Christ's life giving blood. It is an offense to those that do not understand (John 6:66). It is God's grace, through Christ, that helps to keep sin from getting worse.

R. Charlotte, the omniscient looks down from above, she always keeps her promises. God, the omniscient looks down from above, and always keeps his covenants.

S. Wilbur always looks to Charlotte for friendship, comfort, assurance, and oversight, and she provides all that and protection, too. That is how Jesus looked to his father, and how Christians look to and trust the Trinity.

T. In the movie, Avery, Fern's brother, takes a pitch fork and stabs it at Charlotte trying to kill her, while Fern watches. In the story of Christ, while Christ hangs on the cross a soldier spears his side to see if he is dead, while Mary watches.

U. In the movie, Wilbur draws a crowd due to the presence of miracles, literal signs like "SOME PIG", and wonders. In the Christ story, Jesus draws crowds because of his miracles, signs, or wonders.

V. In the movie, at the very end, Wilbur promises to Charlotte's daughters, now spinning their web in the "hallowed doorway": "I pledge to you my friendship forever." Jesus' last words to his followers (as recorded by Matthew) are: "I am with you always, until the end of the age."

W. Charlotte repeatedly reminds those in the barn to be patient and "Never hurry, never worry. Don't be afraid." Christ repeatedly reminded his followers "Do not worry. Do not be afraid."

X. While Wilbur sleeps, Charlotte works. Wilbur doesn't always see what Charlotte is up to, but what she does is always for Wilbur's good. Jesus told his followers that they will not always see or understand, but the hidden wholeness of God's providence will always work out for their good.

Y. Miracles can have a conversion affect on people. In the book, when the farm hand, Lurvy, first sees Charlotte's "SOME PIG," he drops to his knees and says a short prayer. In the movie, when the sloppy farm hand, Harvey, sees "SOME PIG," he goes to town, gets a haircut and new clothes. Christ's miracles had a similar affect on people.

Z. Charlotte says to Wilbur "I will save you, trust me."...which Charlotte reinforces to mean, do what I say. God promises to save us if we trust Him and do what he says.

GL. Just got off the radio with Gus Lloyd, and he came up with a great mythic type in the movie that relates to Christ and the Church. At the very end of the movie, hundreds of Charlotte's babies throw a thin thread of silk up into the air, and trusting the wind to carry them aloft, they float off to places far and wide to spin their own web. This reminded Gus of how Christ sent out his disciples, and later the church, trusting the winds of the Spirit to carry the Good News into all the world. And in each new city they settle they would cast their nets (look like webs) and proclaim the Good News with both their words and actions. As E.B. White writes at the end of the book (and it's in the movie as well) "It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both." -- I suppose we could say the same of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—a good friend and a good writer.

"Now there are a few more, but I've run out of letters," said Charlotte.

Well, okay, if you insist, one more, but this last one is pushing the envelope:

ZZ. There are four times that Charolette writes in her web, communicating with humans. The words are "SOME PIG", "TERRIFIC", "RADIANT", and "HUMBLE." There were four events in Christ's life that correspond to these words. (Maybe there were more but I'm blocking them out right now.) The first was when Jesus was born and God revealed the birth to shepherds and wise men essentially saying this is SOME BIRTH and you need to pay attention to it, which is what Charlotte is saying about Wilbur's arrival. The second time, was when Jesus was baptised, and a voice came down from heaven saying "This is my TERRIFIC Son, with you I am well pleased." (Okay, so I'm paraphrasing a little. But I think I have the inflection right.). The third time, was when Jesus was transfigured and shone RADIANT as he talked with Elijah and Moses. The fourth time, was when Christ took on his most HUMBLE estate and was crucified.

Please go on to POST 3 on Charlotte's Web where I discuss the film's "pro-life" themes, and finally, in Post 4, the Moral Premise and Moment of Grace.