Two new favorites

My list of favorite movies of 2007 will be coming soon – I’m holding off on posting it until I’ve had more time to mull over Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood which I just saw with a friend Monday, as it is sure to secure a spot – so for now, check out Jeffrey Overstreet’s list, if you haven’t done so yet. I agree with Jeffrey about many of his picks, including his number one selection which will also be toward the top of my list.

I did want to write a little about my two favorite older movies that I saw for the first time in 2007. And I owe a word of thanks to Jeffrey for bringing these films to my attention, through his excellent book Through a Screen Darkly – Looking Closer at Beauty, Truth and Evil in the Movies. Both of these movies are now on my top 10 all-time favorite movies list.

The first is Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue. While I love all three films in the trilogy (Red and White being the other two, each representing colors of the French flag and also symbolizing, in turn, liberty, equality and fraternity), this one stood out to me, and not just because the main character, Julie, is a composer, as is her husband. In Through a Screen Darkly, Jeffrey points out that “When Americans make films about liberty, they usually tell stories about the glory of independence and the need to break away from the expectations of others and follow a personal dream. Kieslowski’s portrayal of one woman pursuing liberation gives us a strikingly different impression of individualism. The more Julie tries to break free, the more she imprisons herself, cutting herself off from her relationships and her calling.”

While the film’s portrayal of loneliness and suppression of emotion struck a chord and gave me space to sort through my own thoughts and feelings, what stood out to me most seemed, at first glance, to be nothing more than a passing comment. When Julie is confronted with a situation involving someone she should hate, someone who has caused her much emotional pain, she doesn’t respond as expected. And her response elicits the statement “I knew it. Patrice told me a lot about you. That you are good. That you are good and generous. That’s what you want to be.” I plan to delve deeper into this topic in future posts, but for now I’ll say that I am becoming more conscience of how many things I do, or better, try to do, not because I necessarily want to do them but because the person I want to become would do them. I’d much rather act selfishly in this moment, but I don’t want to be the type of person I’ll become if that is my default behavior in the coming years.

Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Winders, is my other treasured discovery of the year. It tells the story of two angels in post-war Berlin, watching over man, and of the desire of one of them, Damiel, to become human after falling in love. So this post doesn’t become too long, I’ll wait to go into detail about most of what I loved later. I was so captivated by the dialog that, my first time through, I had to pause it several times so I could write down certain lines.

You know how, once something is brought to your attention, you start seeing it everywhere? Like when you want to buy a new car, and you notice for the first time how many other people have the car you want? I think that is one reason this particular scene in Wings of Desire is my favorite. Not long before watching it, I had a couple conversations, one with a friend and one with my pastor, about how all of us not only need someone to love us but need someone to love. Built deep into our psyche is this desire, this passion. After our conversations, I came across a passage in Frederick Buechner’s writings where he muses about this need for love and to love, and it stood out because it was on my mind. Likewise, this scene. Marion, the woman whom Damiel falls in love with, has just returned to her trailer after a rehearsal (she’s a circus acrobat). She’s sitting on her bed, lost in thought, while Damiel (who cannot be seen by her) tenderly watches her from behind. Through Damiel, we are allowed to eavesdrop on her thoughts:

Longing for a wave of love that would stir in me.
That’s what makes me clumsy…
the absence of pleasure.
Desire for love.
Desire to love.

And as she thinks “desire to love”, the film, which up to this point, forty-five minutes in, has been in black-and-white, suddenly, breathtakingly, is infused with color. And the world is new.

Three Colors: Blue and Wings of Desire have much in common with Into Great Silence, one of Jeffrey’s, and my, favorite films of last year. Again, writing in Through a Screen Darkly about Blue, Jeffrey notes that “every scene – in fact, almost every shot -unfolds like a poem. We are challenged to stop asking what will happen next and begin considering what is happening now. What can we learn from the moment? The more I watch the film, the more I’m learning to consider the movement of light, the color of a room, the brief hint of tension in the lines in Julie’s face… Kieslowski communicates so much with so little. If he were moving any faster, we would lose the detail and the fullness of his world”.

A couple pages later, he writes:

Images speak. Like music, they convey things that mere words cannot communicate. The power of the image is different from the power of the narrative. That’s a secret great filmmakers know…

Understanding the way that great art “speaks” is not just about interpreting the moral of a story. It takes patience and learning to do more than follow the narrative. A friend will watch a film that I have come to cherish, and he’ll come to me with an apologetic frown, saying, “I’m sorry, but it was just too slow for me. There didn’t seem to be much happening.”
I know what he means. But lately I’ve been increasingly grateful for films in which not much happens. Weary of constantly taking in information from the news, e-mail, web pages, television, movies, the telephone and radio, I find myself longing for a vacation. And that longing has led me to seek movies that satisfy in a very different way from narrative. This art is not about what happens next. It’s a style that gives me space to have my own thoughts while engaging the director’s vision. I’m not simply being led along – I’m a willing participant. It gives me pictures and sounds to consider rather than developments to anticipate.
Increasingly, I find myself preferring to see a great film again instead of a new release. I find myself drawn to slow, contemplative films than fast action movies. I take so much pleasure in discovering all that things can mean that I’m not so thrilled by the buildup to another explosion or surprise. Yoda would be proud – I’m trying to “unlearn what I have learned.” We can find new freedom when we stand still, when we stop running from one thought to the next, and give ourselves time instead to absorb each moment and explore it.

This isn’t about movies, ultimately. This kind of moviegoing is an education in how to live.

Did you catch that last sentence? “This isn’t about movies, ultimately. This kind of moviegoing is an education in how to live.” In this new year, join me in taking time to absorb more of this kind of movies, to watch movies not as a distraction or an escape, but as a helpful reminder to slow down and listen to our lives and the lives of those around us.

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