May 20, 2013


(And please see comments so you will know I'm not condoning adultery in any way.)

The latest film rendering of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” is done by the great Baz Luhrmann (Strictly Ballroom, Moulin Rouge!, Australia), master of the spectacle. (I will never understand why more filmmakers don’t make the cameras, lights, colors and sound hum like Luhrmann.) I had never read the novel and didn’t even know the plot, so the whole thing hit me for the first time with full impact.

Luhrmann’s highly stylized, always-in-smooth-motion, CGI settings are perfect for the world of Jay Gatsby, (Leonardo DiCaprio) the man with the “perfect imagination.” If you don’t know the plot, the way the story is going to shape up is not evident from the beginning. The film gets off to a slow, almost uninteresting, hokey start with lots of voice-over from Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who is actually narrating from the story he wrote about Gatsby’s life. So the film is really all a flashback, returning occasionally to Nick’s writing of the story. At first I thought, “Oh-oh, somebody was lazy adapting the novel to the screen and is doing sloppy blah blah blah while concentrating only on visuals,” but after a bit, the film hits its stride and all is well.

There is a huge build-up to Gatsby before we ever see him, something like “Hud,” only much longer, but not too long. We hear early on that he is a man of tremendous hope, and so we are hooked, because we like hope, we need hope.

“Gatsby” is not a frothy, roaring 20’s, “bright young things” romp. And the aspects of it that are are only there for a contrast to deeper issues, deeper matters, matter of the hearts, matters of character and goodness. You cannot even begin to imagine how characters will develop, how things will change at the end. Every time you think you know how things will turn out (masterful secrets, suspenses, tensions, reveals, twists, lies, drama, events) you don’t, so it’s best to just give up and watch.

Gatsby seems to be a bit of a God figure, actually. He gives lavishly, he is always watching, he loves extravagantly, he is infinitely mysterious, “but he seemed to understand me.” After talking to Gatsby, a woman declares: “It ALL makes sense!” “If there is NO GATSBY, what is all this FOR?” Gatsby’s CLOSENESS to everyone. “Son of God.” But he is also a deeply flawed figure with shady business dealings, and not beyond adultery. Can a flawed figure be a God-figure in a film? I think so—in their unflawed parts. Man is always greater than his sin. Gatsby IS a man of hope, and love, too. Great hope and great love. The way he loves Daisy (Carey Mulligan—does any other actress have more expressive eyes?) is a bracing statement about the total way a man completely in love with a woman loves her—from the moment he stops and makes a decision to fall in love with her (knowing that his mind would no longer be free to “roam like the mind of God”). This is the real Theology of the Body piece here. He loves her, does everything for her, wants to protect her and take care of her, but he does not force her. He does not want her to be his prisoner.

At a certain point I was wondering if this film adaptation and the narration were just too semi-philosophical for Americans in parts. (I love this stuff, but I’m a weirdo.) Nobody stirred in my theater. Yay. I think they WELCOMED the differentness of “Gatsby.”

This film is terribly transcendent. At the end, my packed cinema full of very diverse moviegoers was utterly lost in a contemplative silence. Fitzgerald’s literary poetry kind of towers above any screenplay we hear today. I think it mesmerized them.

So much of Gatsby’s life was dreams and illusion, but much of it was realized, also. Like every life. And love? Well, we are all heading toward endless Love.

“Gatsby” is totally a man’s story. A man’s love story. Also a sort of buddy story. Fitzgerald plays peek-a-boo with God in this story. God is here and there. Is He benign? It’s hard to tell exactly, but man is definitely His image, and males in a particular way in this film make things happen, are in charge, know their own greatness, steer their own courses. Gatsby has a sense of unlimitedness within him that he explicitly recognizes as being like God. And a woman—in the end—is the most worthy object of all his affections, desires, time, planning and attention. Everything is for her. He has “prepared a place for her.” Nothing else matters but her. One can’t help thinking of God wooing us. God’s extravagant gestures towards us. How do we respond?


--Hard review to write without spoilers!

--God saves all OUR letters and mementos. And He keeps ALL the crayon drawings of our lives on His big refrigerator in heaven.

--I love how Gatsby was nervous like a little boy waiting to see Daisy again.

--This is SO Luhrmann’s movie. He owns it.

--The vibe feels 20’s. Good job.

--Fitzgerald is in love with words. Me too.

--Nick writes because his doctor told him to.

--Great high AND intimate drama.

--“He looked at her like every woman wants to be looked at.”

--“He knew that falling in love would change him forever.”

--“I felt married to her.”

--“She just needs more time.”

--“Gatsby knew that he could climb, but only alone.”

--I don’t know that I understand what Fitzgerald is trying to say about “the past.”

--There is so much depth and symbolism everywhere in this story: NYC, the house, the water, the invitation, the elusiveness of Gatsby, the separation of classes and races, the big eye-doctor eyeglasses, Gatsby’s mansion itself, the parties, who was TRULY corrupted by money?

--Blessed John Paul II. THE GREAT.

--Nick begins the story with a quote from his father. This deferring to the father is rather rare today. For me, it situates the whole story in the presence of God the Father, a kind of fatherly God.

--The flashing green light through the fog. What a beautiful symbol.

--Luhrmann always expertly mixes his period pieces with modern music, and scenes always threaten to bust out into a music video. Hip-hop in the 20’s? Word. Totally works.

--I lost the significance of the tooth.

--The DiCaprio problem. I am not a big fan of his acting. And he will still look like a little boy when he’s 80, I’m sure. But he has the right handsomeness for this era, and he puts in a good performance. Sometimes I can see him thinking. Sometimes he seemed to stumble on his lines. But this might be perfect for the hopeful, ever-youthful Gatsby. Might.

--Carey Mulligan is great, but (Aussie!!) Joel Edgerton (who plays Daisy’s hubby, Tom) is the best actor in this film. Outstanding. Tobey Maguire, is his usual, lackluster, mumbly self. Sorry, I just don’t think he’s an actor. But he plays a good beige narrator/observer, which is needed for “Gatsby,” methinks.

--“Old sport.”

--Marvelous soundtrack.

--Do men like this film? If so, why/why not?

--I know nothing about Fitzgerald, but I’m thinking of his Irishness: mindful of the poor and social injustice. Wrestling with God.

--Shades of “Citizen Kane”? Yes.

--Will WE wait for God?

--A good man is hard to find. But when found, he is the most beautiful thing in Creation. Men think it’s us women, but I think it’s them, and I think I’m right because of Jesus.

--BIG, FAT SPOILER COMING UP! CLOSE YOUR EYES! Daisy was not worthy of Gatsby's love. (This was an incredibly delayed reveal, because at first we thought she was! Great storytelling.) Just like us. We are not worthy of God's excessive, heat-seeking-missile-locked-on-us love. We are callous and shallow. We prefer trinkets.

--"Rolling Stone's" Peter Travers REALLY did not like this film!

May 6, 2013


Terrence Malick's ("Tree of Life") new film, "To the Wonder," is, at best, a bit of a disappointment, and, at worst, looks like one long perfume commercial.

Malick employs his now trademark elegant, open, airy, spacious camerawork  (although many shots/scenes are far too reminiscent of “Tree of Life” itself) to tell the story of Marina (Olga Kurylenko)—a waifish French single mother with a pre-teen daughter, Tatiana. Marina falls for American, Neil (Ben Affleck), in her native Paris, and he takes her and her daughter back to the flatlands of Oklahoma. But Marina can’t marry Neil because “in the eyes of the Church” she is still married to her husband who abandoned her and her daughter. She does not state this bitterly, because she is a woman of faith, prays and goes to Mass.

The profound, dedicated but troubled priest at the parish is Fr. Quintana (Javier Bardem). He seems to be going through a dark night of the soul where he feels he has lost God, can no longer perceive Him, and yet he still carries on and prays intimate, Psalm-like prayers. As in many Malick films, characters constantly whisper prayers and converse with the Divine as easily as they do with the human.

“What is this love that loves us--
that comes from nowhere. From all around.”
“Love that loves us—thank you. Merci.”

Neil and Marina and her daughter share joys, tears and fights. Much of TTW is about the male-female romantic relationship. Most of the dialogue is either snatches of people’s thoughts or snatches of conversations that are purposely not in sync with the visuals. People’s mouths move and the words come out before or after (sometimes it’s easy to lip-read). I found TTW even more “impressionistic” than “Tree of Life.” Malick’s impressionism is decidedly not everyone’s cup of tea. Malick makes what I call “meditation films” that require your full, undivided attention. TTW also has lots of subtitles because French is spoken and even a little Italian. I, personally, like his films, but you have to be in the right mood and feeling very patient.

SPOILER ALERT! I’m doing spoilers because people are asking me what I think especially of Malick’s handling of Church stuff. Malick’s films are intensely Catholic, in every sense of that word.

Marina’s visa runs out and she returns to France. Neil temporarily takes up with Jane (Rachel McAdams),  an acquaintance from his youth, with whom he also fornicates. But Marina eventually returns, and she and Neil marry, first in front of a justice of the peace, and later in the Catholic Church (it’s not explained if she got an annulment).

Neil barely says a word throughout the entire film. He seems like an OK guy, only very indecisive and afraid of commitment. We never get to know him at all. Only the women speak. What do they speak of? Love. Desperately wanting Neil.

As always, Malick can’t get enough of the beauty of nature, and his camera lens/eye seems to just keep wandering off to it in the midst of human travails. It reminds me of a saying from Rumi:

"But listen to me. For one moment quit being sad.
Hear blessings dropping their blossoms around you."

Malick finds God in nature, and, I believe, uses “nature interruptions”—shot at all times of day (he’s particularly fond of dusk as I am) to keep hammering home the delicious and consoling fact that we are  truly “surrounded” (a huge theme in this film) at all moments by God-Love. Magnificent, hoary bison even “surround” Neil and Jane at one point. “God in Malick’s Films” would be an excellent filmic study.

Malick must be beside himself with delight at what today’s film technology enables him to do. Since he uses an abundance of natural light (even indoors), his movies can look like they were shot on film.

TTW is not a “mature” film.  It is almost childish and seems to lack the forethought and careful planning of “Tree of Life.” TTW feels like an unnecessary film. I almost fear it will mar his “Tree of Life” legacy. Malick could have just ceased filmmaking after “Tree.” It cannot be topped—not that the esoteric director is even trying. He’s often like a photag-enthusiast, a kid or film student with his first camera, let loose upon the world.  As Michael Phillips of the “Chicago Tribune” asks: For Terrence Malick,  there can ever be too many fields of waving grain in a film? Phillips answers his own question with a “no.”

As much as Malick’s camera loves human beings, it loves nature more, and would be content to silently, wordlessly make us stop and contemplate it forever.


--Nobody has anything to do. Oh, Neil LOOKS like he’s doing a job once in a while. They go shopping once, and toward the end some dishes get washed. That’s about it. But maybe that’s the whole point? We are busy about nothing, when we should be busy about each other? The important things in life? Love? Remember, in the Garden were only Adam and Eve.* And the Garden. I think this is Malick’s great nostalgia.

--Malick’s women are fragile, luminous, wide-eyed, girlish ingĂ©nues. Almost like D. W. Griffith, who preferred his starlets barely of age.

--Marina, Tatiana and Jane’s dancing around and jumping on beds gets very tiresome. I realize that, at least on Marina’s part, it could very well be French whimsy, but—in the immortal words of “Monk” (via Randy Newman): “I could be wrong now, but I don’t think so.” I think it is rather Malick’s idealized vision of woman: the woman-child.

--The house in Oklahoma is never fully furnished. Doors to the outside are left open, and messy boxes are always in a state of being packed/unpacked. Horrible impermanence.

--The old Black guy at church (and old lady who says—offscreen!—she will pray for him) trying to help their priest FEEL God again!

--Lots of great quotes: “Jesus does not let us avoid choice. We MUST choose.” –Fr. Quintana
“Why do we come back down?” –Marina
“I thirst for You.” –Fr. Quintana

--Even though made by a man, and with a very strong central male presence, TTW, I think, is meant to be a woman’s film. A woman’s perspective on love. From a man’s perspective. :)

--Like “Tree of Life,” TTW is very reassuring: “All things work together for those who love God.”

--I have nothing against good-looking people, but the cast is far from ordinary in the looks department, and therefore a bit unrelatable, at least the women.

--Maybe I’m a cold-blooded fish, but I didn’t really feel sorry for anyone in this film, except Tatiana, and maybe the priest.

--*SPOILER ALERT: I almost feel that when Tatiana goes to live with her father, she was finally “out of the way.” It’s as though Malick only wants Marina and Neil together, forever young (even though there are hints of children throughout the film), forever sharing a new, young love.

--Sad little scene about Marina’s IUD. IUD’s are sad little things, anyway.

--A little fleeting nudity: Marina and Jane’s breasts.

--The love-language between humans easily slips into prayer. Sometimes hard to distinguish whether a human or God is being addressed/talked about.

--TTW feels even more European than “Tree of Life.” I imagine the direction given to the actors: “Just do anything here. Twirl. See how many ways you can twirl.”

--Some scenes (especially the fights and lovemaking in the front windows) beggar belief and border on the ridiculous.

--Definite theme of: “We don’t need anything. Only ourselves, God, nature, love.

--For all the lovey-dovey stuff, there’s very little chemistry. Like a perfume commercial. We hardly ever see Ben Affleck’s face, and if we do, it’s a side view.

--Marina’s Italian friend is the voice of unbridled, false freedom. “Life is a dream! You can’t make mistakes in a dream. Just go! You’re young—do what you want.”


“Love consists of a commitment which limits one’s freedom—it is a giving of the self, and to give oneself means to limit one’s freedom on behalf of the other. This might seem to be something negative or unpleasant, but love makes it a positive, joyful and creative thing.
                             ---BJP2G, “Love and Responsibility”