Criticism of any kind is never a pleasantry. It stings the heart and swells in there until the natural amnesia of time heals the wound. Also, criticism is never an easy task, either. Abraham Lincoln defined a professional critic as one who has “a right to criticize, who has the heart to help.” Therefore, being a critic is a daunting profession that can fall out of favor with the public and the criticized. Yet doing it good and right is even more challenging and requires a wealth of erudition and insight to observe all things and all beings in the world without supercilious prejudice. I can think of any such critic no other than the late Roger Ebert, whose brilliantly witty anthology of unfavorable movies Your Movie Sucks discerns constructive criticism from malicious cynicism that most of his peers love to delve.
It’s a collection of movies that Ebert finds distasteful to the taste and reason. Ebert opines that filmmakers and the performers tend to patronize with their selective elements, usually senseless violence, gratuitous nudity, and infantile comedy under the pretext of the screen reflection of the realities. But to miss Ebert as an ultra-conservative white curmudgeon movie critic does a great injustice to his bona fide intention and judicious reasoning of why he thinks the movies suck, most notably, ‘Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,’ ‘Chaos,’ and ‘the Pearl Harbor.” The plots, characters, and narratives of these movies ignore the taste and reason universal in all human creatures regarding the principles of sense and judgment common to all humankind. They are either devoid of artistic sensibilities or willfully negligent of the humanity that refuses to cease even in the desolate wilderness of calamities, artificial or natural. Ebert seems to seek in movies a common thread that every one of us, regardless of class, race, and gender, can be bound together to understand what it means to live, ultimately.
Ebert’s credo is the arts of films, paintings, music, and books as a consolation to the hearts that need to relive the yokes of daily lives. Therefore, the artists are to look into people’s realities from all walks of life and illustrate each life’s values, however insignificant it might be, by elevating the ordinariness into arts of life to neutralize the vicissitudes of life that we all experience. In this regard, Ebert agrees with French painter Jean-Francoise Millet’s timeless adage: “It is treating the commonplace with the feeling of the profound is what gives to art its power.”
I always like Ebert’s films’ reviews because they are easy to read and intelligently passionate and witty despite his knowledge of various subjects. There is no hint of malice in the guise of intellectual sarcasm. His views on the world are agreeable to mine, regarded as outdated forseysm in today’s amazingly political world. Maybe we might belong to a previous era where our perspectives of the world would meet with more consensus and fewer disapprovals. In fact, I liken the person of Ebert to that of Samuel Johnson, the great English writer, thinker, and author of A Dictionary of the English Language for their similarities in appearance, weltanschauungs, and styles of writing that thrill the heart and pique the mind with a touch of humanity that is so rare to be found among the contemporary writers. So, if you are a like-minded appreciator of arts in general and curious about what movies someone like Ebert finds distasteful, take heart and read this book. The words leap from pages with wit and wisdom as the time entertains you like you never know. This book may also serve you as a textual trailer of a movie that you might have fallen into the mistake of paying it to watch.
There has been a vortex of fiery opinions on the controversial Netflix film “Cuties,” directed by French Senegalese Maimouna Maimouna Doucoure as her debut feature. I first heard of the movie while checking on Twitter feed filled with vehement subjective narratives divided -yet again-by the in-vogue trend of racially charged political views, which seems to blur the ambit of art for art’s sake appealing to the universal audience. But the unified viewpoint on the provocative representation of sexualized pre-adolescent girls weighs against the film’s thematic slogan of liberation from oppression, come what may.
The movie has gained a cult status among self-professed progressive keyboard warriors, defenders of social inequality, when in fact, they are seldom in contact with the people they speak for or even get together in their daily lives. That said, the movie has become something of a visual manifesto of social activism, rather than a joy of cinematic experience that bestows a sensory pleasure and mental piquancy on viewers. No pornification and the misguided display of sexual oppression in children’s figures can be sublimated into art. Children are not a medium of political efficacy or a vehicle of personal ambition. The sexualization of children imitating adult acts is counter-productive in translating onto screen per se the socially disfranchised class consciousness in a highly secular society where the income level defines individuals’ worth. Little girls in skimpy attires, gyrating and eyeing in a way that makes them the cult of Ishtar at a Babylonian temple where girls offer their bodies to strange men for holy prostitution. Or shall I say it is a revisionist adaption of “Pretty Baby” or “Lolita” directed by a black woman whose directorial debut is undoubtedly impressive and provocative in the BLM wake?
It amazes me to see people think themselves rational and reasonable when they are just self-professed egoists illustrated with their ostentatiously abstract view of social reality that seems to be out of touch with their own class. They regard “Cuties” as telltale cinematic radical feminism and socialism with a view to liberation by the parody of the reality. However, these intellectuals oversee or willfully ignore the truth about human nature: physical, rather than metaphysical; it is tactile rather than theoretical. Our faculty of mind is affected by the works of the senses and of the imaginations. To this effect, ‘Cuties” will adversely affect people’s judgment when their eyes direct toward the visual feast of perverted pleasure because the impulse, when arisen by stimuli, defeats Ego, voids the Superego, and commandeers false promise of liberation with rapacious sensuality.
The mentalese of Horror refers to an intense feeling of fear or shock that generates a feeling of repulsion, which is akin to ravaging terror to the sense. Consequently, horror films of our time, ranging from the 80s to the present, are filled with gory details of anatomical dissection with teeth and blood conjured up by the inflated creatures of scariest nightmares. That is why I have a soft spot for the 70s films of the supernatural phenomena with an intelligent storyline focused on the mysterious force of the beyond that subtly agitates our most primitive fear of the unknown, the uncertain, the unresolved entities lurking in between a thin line of reality.
The Wicker Man (1973), directed by Robin Hardly, is a unique supernatural film that merits its name engraved on the obelisk of memorable films with the elements of folklore, belief system, music, and history unfolded in a vibrant kaleidoscope of scenes and scenery. It records fear in the ordinariness of landscape and people with the subtly suspected evil power lurking in the hidden alley of defenseless equilibrium. Such fear is not, therefore, forced upon the audience but tantalizing the anticipation of the sensation culminating in the extraordinary frisson of epileptic suspense blocked in a mental airlock.
The story begins when policeman Neil Howie from Mainland Scotland journeys to the remote island called Summerisle in search of a missing girl. A young devout Christian and virgin into the bargain, Howie soon discovers that the whole island is a pagan territory of old gods to whom the pleasant-looking islanders with names of flora practice a human sacrifice when crops fail for harvest. Besides, eroticism abounds with lovers in the field and the cemetery. Sensuality is ubiquitous and free because the instinctual desire is a ritual practice of appreciation of natural beauty, which elevates the licentiousness into sacredness by the innocently joyful acts of the actors. Howe sees himself in a cultural and religious twilight zone and thinks himself as a lone Christian hero, a sort of Nathaniel Hawthorn’s Young Goodman Brown figure stranded in the deep forest where Satanic Sabbath is taking place. Both characters distance themselves from the diabolical influence. They belong to the tribe of Wicker Man in the reality of supernatural power translated from their most deep-seated terror sealed in dreamscapes.
The efficacy of music used for the insularity of the proudly pagan island away from the Christian mainland shines through the film against the idyllically pastoral scenery and its happy-looking islanders joyfully practicing everything contrary to contemporary norms and mores. They are all beautiful and peaceful in their ways and see Jesus as a loser flopping in changing the world. It is this habiliment of pleasant appearance that insidiously pervades a sense of fear without blatantly exploiting it. Perhaps, that is why some people find this film monotonous or unsatisfactory in their touchstone for the ecstatic sensation. For this reason, it is not a statement film pontificating about the significance of endangered paganism but a visual story that tells a legend of the Wicker Man. If you are a fan of the supernatural tale clear of buckets of blood and chops of mutilated bodies, you will find this film worth watching.
Often, we find an answer to an existential dilemma in a situation that defenestrates us to an ocean of choices. How to respond to a challenge may change the compass of the fortune’s wheel. Patience and fortitude conquer all things in the mastery of fear in defense of the sovereignty of life against inconveniences and losses in existential selfhood. In this regard, “Jaws” (1975), directed by Steven Spielberg, shows how Man fights against the Leviathan of Life with will and courage.
“Jaws” is a cinematic feast of horror and adventure that brilliantly blurs the genre of the movie fashioned in minimalist realism as regards to the storyline, characters, and leitmotif. Only the thematic lynchpin is larger- than- life: a hybrid of sea monsters, ranging from Johan’s Big Fish to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick and to Ernest Hemingway’s Mako that loves to swim around by the teeming shore in New York. In fact, the peaceful resort seaboard of Amity in New York betrays our idea of a Great White Shark as a dweller of the Pacific Ocean where tall palm trees and suntanned surfers are part of the landscape. Also, the appearance and roles of the characters in the movie do not carry Hollywood glamour. Police chief Martin Brody (played by Roy Schneider) is a mild-mannered family man who has recently moved from New York City but has aquaphobia due to childhood trauma. Oceanographer Matt Hooper (played by Richard Dreyfuss) is a wealthy neurotic scientist who is determined to get the formidable man-eater. Seasoned fisherman Quint (played by Robert Shaw) has all the characteristics of the choicest seaman with bravado sealed in unhealed fear. The ad-hocish triumvirate team formed mutual allegiance to defeat the predator that not only threatens the lives of people in the water but also agitates their fears buried in the waves of minds’ mains. Jaws is the contender of life’s challenge that the three characters must face and fight.
Spielberg is ingenious in using music as a leitmotif in expressing the intensity of emotions in scenes that produces suspense held in abeyance of impending danger that tantalizes our ready expectation of sequential segments of the story. He uses a recurring theme without the grandiose scale of orchestral tunes, signaling the menacing presence of the predator lurking in the uneasy equanimity of ordinary leisure. Spielberg also defies casting high-billed actors and actresses to create the verisimilitude of reality. The result produces relatability of the characters placed in situations where the ordinary people might have behaved in such extraordinary circumstances, asking us what we would do if we were in the position.
The stupendousness of the big predatory fish and the nuanced emotions of trepidation is akin to reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, where the seasoned fisherman Santiago’s serenity amid the battle against the man-eater in the ocean alone testifies to the steadfastness of human will and courage. Jaws is a film version of it that says, “Man can be destroyed but cannot be conquered.” “Jaws” is a masterpiece cinema that has become a classic in the history of cinema with its legacy. Now I know why people love to watch it anew and again across the oceans.
Religion is a man-made institution that has a hierarchy with a set of values and norms as dictated in protocols. Even the reformation trailblazer Martin Luther, who protested against institutional abuses of the Church, is not entirely free from the criticism. Thus, I hold a healthy amount of preconception about a religious individual whose outwardly practice of faith incongruent with his or her inwardly reflection of personality, which is a view shared by Gandhi’s opinion attesting, “I admire Jesus, not the followers of his.” The movie “Hawaii” (1966), an American drama about Calvinist missionaries and the Hawaiian natives directed by George Roy Hill, echoes the sentiment conflated with the profundity of religious zeal and the nature of humanity laid bare in the clash of cultures.
The epic adventure story is structured around stern Calvinist Reverend Abner (played by Max von Sydow) with his faithful and delightful wife, Jerusha (played by Julie Andrews). Abner’s devotion to the religious cause at the urge of young Hawaiian prince Keoki at the Yale Divinity School brings them to the beautiful heathen islands of Hawaii. Abner is a good man disoriented in the realm of dreary religiosity and ethnocentrism. He sees the beauty in his wife Jerusha and the land of the people he comes to serve but averts his eyes from it with the Bible on the one hand. He keeps all-natural feelings of love, joy, sadness, and even jealousy locked in his puritanical castle of mind and preaches the ire of God that imbues the natives with fear, not love. One look at him will make a man like Captain Hoxworth (played by Richard Harris) infuriated with contempt for the loss of her beloved Jerusha to such ungainly zealot. Abner is, in short, a man of God and would like to think him so as the will of God he serves.
Max Von Sydow’s skillful performance of the role of Abner invokes both contempt and sympathy for the character who does not know how to act in the intimacy of human relationships. It seems that Sydow is particularly good at playing a clergy as he also did as veteran Jesuit Father Merrin in “The Exorcist” (1973). The tall slim figure carries the intellectual air without the pretentiousness that separates him from the mass, giving him the likeness of a suffering philosopher in the wrong place at the wrong time. In playing the internal character in the external context of reality, Sydow does a beautifully nuanced job of capturing all the inner conflicting emotions ranging from joy to disappointment, to ire mixed with envy, and to sorrow. Thus, Abner’s follies and foibles are forgivable and, in fact, a medium for his new conversion into the religion of Charity, Hope, and Faith.
The movie portrays a realistic portrayal of a missionary living in a foreign land. The excellent Jesuit method of enculturation is possible only when he is celibate without a family to support. Then, even mastery of enculturation guarantees no eradication of racial and cultural pride of the actor. Perhaps, the wish of an entirely benign messenger of the Gospel is vain mother to the thought in the ideation of an impeccable man of God. The best thing is to accept our human fallibility by which the meaning of God and the purpose in life come to a realization. “Hawaii” shows us a process of conversion into the mystery of faith occurring not in the pagan natives but Reverend Abner in the beautiful kaleidoscope of nature’s sceneries and the people living in them. This movie deserves its merit on the list of great films of all time for the posteriority.