Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Trial Of Orson Welles

“I began at the top, and have been working my way down ever since.” -Orson Welles

At 26, Welles had written, directed and starred in what is generally considered the greatest film ever made. He would assume this would give him final approval on his next projects. Yet he would never get so much freedom and resources again. He would struggle for nearly the rest of his career to make films just as he wanted. And yet, he is rightly considered one of the greatest directors of all time. One wonders if he could have only continued to realize his visions, what might have been.

Despite being an Academy Award winning film, Citizen Kane did not make money on release. This would prove fatal, as the studios would decide they knew better than Welles how to edit his films.

His follow up film, The Magnificent Ambersons, was cut down by an hour by the editors of RKO. It is still considered one of the most significant films in movie history, despite what most critics agree are mistakes made by RKO, not Welles.

Maybe the best example of seeing Welles’ talent be undermined was, The Lady From Shanghai (1948). The film is about 90 minutes long but was intended to be 150. It is a classic film noir with a blonde haired Rita Hayworth (and Welles’ wife at the time) playing the femme fatale. A somewhat complicated story is made very confusing in just 90 minutes. Some things simply don’t add up, that Welles’ notes and lost footage make much clearer. Maybe the most ridiculous additional scene was one demanded by the head of Columbia, Harry Cohn. Furious Welles had dyed and cut Hayworth’s hair, Cohn added a scene of Hayworth singing. This was to piggyback onto the success of her singing in the recent, Gilda. He also demanded close-ups of Hayworth and a cutesy new score.

Amid this travesty by Cohn, we see what the film nearly was, and still is in parts. The finale is riveting. The speech by Welles about sharks eating each other, proves prophetic by the end.  The “Hall Of Mirrors” scene has been redone over and over since. Welles’ character walking away from Hayworth at the end would shadow their life, as they would divorce soon after filming was completed.

Final edit approval would be taken away from him for nearly every subsequent film. Years after his death, Welles’ decisions are continually vindicated by his meticulous notes. Touch of Evil (1958), was reedited in 1998 according to 58 pages of notes from Welles. It is nearly unanimous in thought that his version if far superior to the version the studios released at the time. 13 years after his death, Welles would not be around to hear the praise.

The Trial, made in 1962, is the most autobiographical of Welles' films.  It is at once difficult and utterly fascinating. The fact that the viewer has little idea what is happening is inconsequential to the experience. The main character has no idea either.  Underappreciated until years later, The Trial is Welles asking his critics, “what did I do wrong?”

The film stars Anthony Perkins as a man accused of a crime. He is never told what crime he has committed and must weave his way through a maze of bureaucracy and nonsense to figure out how to defend himself. 

The Trial was one of the few films after Citizen Kane that would be 100% his own.  In it you see shades of things Kubrick would do later, and even Richard Lester in, A Hard Day's Night.  According to Welles himself, it was his greatest film.

In 1974 Welles would release his last completed film; F For Fake. Part documentary, part fiction feature, part film essay, Welles described it as “a new kind of film.” He would be correct. The editing is masterful. For better or worse it would influence untold works through the subsequent years. The quick editing was new at the time. Of course it has been copied much since. Often to good effect; often not.  Rarely as good as in F For Fake.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Big Tent Christianity

I recently attended a Big Tent Christianity Conference in Raleigh, NC. Big Tent is another buzzword or offshoot of the Emergent Movement. Speakers at the conference included Brian McLaren (often attributed with starting the Emergent movement), Shane Claiborne, and Jay Bakker (Jim and Tammy Faye’s son).

Ministers and theologians spoke with passion about justice, denominationalism, and sexuality, among other things. We sang a few songs and at break times you could go around to different booths. Booths included “People of Faith Against The Death Penalty,” Wesley Seminary, Mars Hill Graduate School, and a table selling books by many of the big emergent leaders of today. Some of the writers were in the room.

Now I figured I might disagree with some of what was said. I knew this going in, but that is why I wanted to go. I wanted to feel challenged and hear some decent debate/discussion. Tony Campolo is lumped in the emergent pastor category often, and I have found him interesting, ever since I heard him speak in 1985.

Leaving the conference, I came away feeling, well, possibly sad. Now no, it was not a revival really, I get that. But everyone who spoke is a professing Christian. I heard Jesus mentioned. We sang a couple songs about “justice” and making our heart “green” was one lyric sang amongst all the Styrofoam coffee cups and numerous laptops.

But upon first leaving I did not feel filled up. Then I went home and thought about it all.

As much as we as Christians want to reach out to people, I feel maybe we have lost sight of something. It seems many are so concerned with reaching out and including all in this tent, that they are compromising the scripture.

Overall, it felt like there was just enough truth to be dangerous.

One comment I wrote down was, “Jesus never said he follows scripture. He said he follows God.”

It seemed to me that people were getting way too close to just disregarding the Bible all together.

I thought about how minister Rob Bell once wrote it would not really matter if we found out the Virgin Birth did not happen.

Lutheran minister Nadia Bolz-Weber, said, “I preach the gospel I actually need to hear.”

Interesting. Shouldn’t we hear all of it? Even the tough parts?

The topic of Big Tent Sexuality, quickly turned into a discussion on only homosexuality.

Kimberly Knight, a lesbian woman and a minister, stated “we look silly arguing issues of homosexuality to secular people.” I had to think, what does that matter?

Aren’t we supposed to stick out and look different than the rest of the world? We should not come across as rude or judgmental, but I did not think silly was an issue.

A general mantra seems to be: “why are we worried about this issue, when A: is happening over here and B: is happening over there?”

Just because there are all sorts of issues to deal with, doesn’t mean we completely ignore another does it?

Maybe the most interesting speaker for me was Brian Ammons, a gay man and member of the Alliance of Baptists. Brian had a take I had not yet heard; as he is offended by the arguments that “gay people can’t help it, they were born this way.”

Ammons says this was all strategy created in the 1970s. “It’s victimizing, it’s saying you have no choice. I have a choice with whom I’m sleeping with.”

Jay Bakker closed out this topic. He passionately preached about supporting his homosexual brothers and sisters and said “I don’t think it is a sin. But if you do, you must get past it.”

Concerning Jesus, he said, “If the Torah was his Bible, he didn’t follow it.”

This to me is a perfect example of a quote that needed some follow up. I mean, is it true? A little true; not true at all?

The one time I remember the panel being really tested by the moderator, was one of the most interesting moments. During the topic of Justice, the panel was asked, if they felt that the very safety net structures in society they always vote for, were actually hurting their ability to practice Christian Justice?

This was followed by an almost awkward pause, and eventual answers that made little sense. A better answer is out there, but I do not think the panel was even prepared to have to answer for themselves.

Bakker was the only person I saw with a Bible in hand. Raising it up, he stated, “Has this distorted our view of love?”

“I challenge anyone to prove me differently. The concept we have of gays or lesbians, the concept against two people in loving committed relationships, is nowhere to be found in the bible.”

“Don’t preach against my LBGT brothers and sisters. It’s not there! People say I’m picking and choosing, well maybe I am, but it’s not there!”

But homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible as wrong. The argument most people make is it’s not directly mentioned by Jesus, so therefore it can’t be wrong.

But don’t tell me it is not mentioned. Does monogamy make everything alright?

We seem to be ignoring parts of the Bible when they do not suit us. There are passages I have struggled with. It is why study and discussion is important to me.

A sentiment I felt through the conference was “we like the bible, but we wouldn’t mind ripping out a few pages.”

“I don’t worship the Bible, I worship Christ. If this (the Bible) gets in the way of love, then throw it out.” -Jay Bakker

My main concern is, are we loving our brothers and sisters to hell? Maybe that puts too fine a point on it, but I do not know any other way to say it.

I am reminded of a video one church made where a man is drowning. Another man sees this along the beach and shouts out, “I love you! I love you! Be my friend!”

Of course the man drowns. So how loving are we really, if it just helps lead to one’s destruction?

I realize some people will never agree with me on the Bible. Some would say, it was written a long time ago, by men, and just take it for whatever good you get out of it.

But I just cannot make myself do that. If Christianity means anything to me, then the whole book matters to me.

Jesus is not only responsible for the words in red.

W.C. Fields; that famous comic actor, was also well known at the time for being an outspoken atheist. A famous story goes that a few weeks before he died, a friend visited him at the hospital and found him in his bed reading the Bible. His friend asked what he was doing and Fields responded, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

There were some good things said in Raleigh last week. But if shaping the Bible to any way that feels more comfortable to us is an answer, then count me out.

I want to make sure God is shaping me, and not the other way around.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Goodbye Solo

Maybe friendship is at its highest point when you can not rely on receiving anything in return.

Goodbye Solo writer and director Ramin Bahrani, is from Winston Salem, NC. He uses the knowledge of his hometown to great effect. The film is shot entirely on location. It is its own character.

Red West plays William. William is a man of about 70 who makes a deal with a cab driver to take him to Blowing Rock, NC. He makes no plans for a return trip.

Red West was once a bodyguard for and close personal friend of Elvis. They were friends since high school. He even wrote several songs for Elvis as well as Pat Boone, Ricky Nelson and Johny Rivers.

He split with Elvis after breaking the foot of the man who was bringing Elvis drugs. He then told him he would work his way up to his face.

Souleymane Sy Savane plays Solo, the taxi driver. He is from the Ivory Coast, although the character is from Senegal. In the film, Solo is studying to become a flight attendant. In real life, Savane was a flight attendant. There is a smile on his face always close by. This could not be just acting.

"A big part of what the film is about is the conception of love; and what does it mean to love someone. And in this case specifically, it is about loving someone selflessly." -Director Ramin Bahrani