Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Christ, the Devil, and Lewis

I decided to reread the Narnia Chronicles with the news that there will be a film released around Christmas, with the amazing Tilda Swinton as the White Witch. I’ve been wanting to reread them for a while for a couple of reasons: I first read them when my parents were divorcing, and even the name Prince Caspian summons up images of my mother sunbathing in a bikini in our Omaha backyard while crying about leaving (odd, but true), so I was hoping my rereading them I will actually remember them, as I was emotionally otherwise engaged; I am also interested in the Christian imagery, which I kept hearing more and more about.

And wow—I’ve read the first two books, and it’s insane. I’m particularly sensitive right now, given our current religious situation in this country—the war,etc., and I feel like cosmologies are everywhere—from Christianity to Scientology, Mel Gibson to Tom Cruise.

For those of you who don’t know, the first book is The Magician’s Nephew, which deals with the creation of Narnia, and the second book is The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which deals with the war over Narnia and the death/resurrection of Aslan the lion. And basically it’s crazy with Christian allegory—with a little Greek thrown in for fun-- The evil queen is a descendant of Lilith; the humans are called “Sons of Adam”; one of the children bring evil into the new world; the lion must die for the sins of a traitor, but then manages to come back to life and triumph.

Lewis was famously a theologian, and a friend of Tolkien’s. His world is less complex than Tolkein’s, and more whimsical, although Tolkein took his subject from another tale as well. I prefer Phillip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, though it is baldy anti-religion. Narnia is for a younger child, I would imagine. But that is where it’s magic lies. Who does not dream of a new world? Who didn’t touch the back of their closet after reading this book as a child, hoping that it would dissolve and reveal an enchanted glade? I love the World between Worlds in the first book, and how there are many different worlds. Pullman owes a debt to Lewis for this. And Lewis’ writing is wonderful—easy, descriptive, charming, captivating. Also funny that it was written for a little girl, as Alice was written for a little girl, and Peter Pan for a little boy. Tiny British muses.

The ideas to me in the first two books are a catechism in Christian thought, though: the world is created by a breath of a god-like creature; there is evil, it’s your fault on some level and your responsibility; there must be a battle; there must be a death/resurrection. And I guess that’s what sitting in my craw at the moment. I am fascinated at the whole idea of resurrection, especially now that people are “dying for our country”—it begs the question of what did Christ/God do that any parent with a child at war is not asked to do? And be glad about it? It’s the martyrdom that’s at the base of all our thought. I was particularly interested in the way that Aslan is killed. He is lashed to a stone table, but only after being shaved and ridiculed. He is beaten/dehumanized (de-lionized?). And that struck me the same as the Roman soldiers in Mel Gibson’s highly successful snuff film “Passion of the Christ”—not only do they kill him, they mock and beat and taunt him as well. As if killing was a release from the ridicule. Or to make things worse. Now is this to dehumanize their victim for themselves, or is it to dehumanize the killers for us so we don’t feel bad later when they are slain? And where is the Christian value of life in that? I don’t want to get off into those contradictions, but it’s interesting in our current climate. There is a nebulous “terrorist” who is evil and bad by nature for no reason, has no humanity or intelligence, and therefore we are off the hook when they are killed. These are how wars are fought. I could go on, as the examples are endless.

There is a great excerpt from Julia Sweeney’s recent one-woman show “Letting Go of God” on This American Life, where she talks about her bible study, the idea of Christ suffering, and how off-put she was after actually reading the bible and seeing its contradictions. (She's recording it on CD, and wirting a book--can't wait). I have no intention of offending anyone, but the questions are interesting. For me, that’s how we find god. And it’s interesting for me to see in this book written for children such bold ideas as resurrection put forth. That idea, that someone can save us by dying for us, is now at the center of Western thought. I don’t think we can underestimate its importance.

I’m also interested in the principal evil being an independent, power hungry woman. Of course, the most fascinating Disney villains are as well--the new film of the book is being made by Disney. Why is that? I also want to know why Aslan sets up a monarchy in the first book, and the political system of choice is a monarchy. There is much of kings/queens in the bible, and noble lineage (Christ descending from David, etc—hero must have noble blood, King of Kings, blah blah, blah--my Lord used for Jesus as well as for the despot who levies a tax on you). I am fascinated that our mind goes there so easily, that we are still a product of centuries of that thinking. Democracy is only 200 years old. Before that—unheard of-- some people were just born to serve. I hear that the Christian imagery gets less as the books move on, and I am excited to know. There will be more thoughts, as there is much more. But I am constantly interested in how all of these thoughts and belief systems are abutting in our current culture.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

I am my own wife

I saw an amazing show last night. I have rarely felt that I am watching not only a theatrical event, but a testament to humanity, and it’s complexities. The show is “I am my own wife”, the examination of the life of Charlotte Von Mahlsdorf, a man who lived as a transvestite in East German Berlin from the early years of World War II to until shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I had seen the Rosa von Prauheim film of the same name, "Ich bin meine eigene Frau",, in the early nineties a couple times, intrigued not only by the style of the film, but by Charlotte himself, who appears in the film instructing the actors how to play him in different parts of his life. Since the release of that film, Charlotte was given the medal of honor, appeared on talk shows, and became a hero. Subsequently, it was found out that he was working for the East German secret Police as a spy, and may have been responsible for the incarceration of one of his closest friends.

There are too many incredible aspects to Charlotte’s life to report here: He was a collector of German furniture and furnishings circa 1890-1900, had a 27 room museum that housed his collection, saved a famous bar from demolition by bringing all the furnishings to his basement and having gay gatherings there, killed his Nazi Father, had an incredible lesbian aunt who was responsible for giving him Magnus Hirshfeld’s “Die Transvestite” and a sense of who he was. I won’t recount more here—it’s a stunning story. The title can be translated as "I am my own wife", which Charlotte tells his mother when she asks if he will marry, or as "I am my own woman", which seems as apt, if not more.

It is told in a bravura performance by Jefferson Mays, who plays 34 characters, including Charlotte and the playwright himself. And he is utterly believable—wonderful, in fact. The play itself is based on interviews Doug Wright conducted with Charlotte between 1992 and 1993. And as a play, it’s somewhat frustrating in what it doesn’t answer. We are unsure by the end what is true or not. The play raises the questions, but can’t answer them, as it is a life we are seeing, and not a drama. It’s somewhat more of an interview and an inquiry than a play. And it’s fascinating.

One of the more harrowing stories is how Charlotte and her friends are attacked by neo-Nazi skinheads in her own home after the fall of the wall, precipitating his move from Germany. He appears on a talk show, with a fun silly host, and completely changes the energy of the show.
Doug Wright wisely does not try to answer many of the questions we have, or delve too deeply into any side aspect of the story, from the gay movement to Nazism. Through Charlotte’s story we get all of that. And, on some level, we come to the same conclusion he does. In the play, he says (I’m paraphrasing) “I need to believe she survived Nazism and Communism, the two most oppressive regimes in Western History, and did it in a pair of heels”. I felt that need as well. The story is too good. And even if not all of it’s true, a lot of it is.

Wright leaves us with a story of a picture he received after Charlotte’s death. It is Charlotte as a 10 year old boy, Luther (I believe), on a park bench flanked by two lion cubs. He tells us how they could have hurt the young boy, as they are big enough, but he is staring straight ahead smiling, and he is completely relaxed, an arm over each cub. It’s a haunting image. Even more haunting is that a large version of the photo is in the lobby to see as you leave the theater. I have rarely felt such a force of history.

I felt at the end of the show that I was standing and clapping for not just a great performance, but for an extraordinary life.

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Mysterious Skin

I left work a little early the other day and caught a matinee of a movie I had wanted to see. Little did I know the power of this small film, or that it would have one of the best performances I have seen in a long while.

The movie is Gregg Araki’s latest, Mysterious Skin. It’s for me by far his best work to date, and contains some great performances and beautiful film-making. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Scott Heim. Now, I’ve had this novel on my bookshelves for nigh on 5 years or so. Every once in a while I will pick it up, read the blurb in back, and then think “I am really not in the mood for this.” I also have a resistance to the “young hustler” genre of gay fiction: anything that seems to telegraph Gritty! Urban! Seedy! when it seems to be more Exploitive! Titillation! And pedophilia is not one of my favorite subjects.

I’m glad I saw the movie. Now I will read the book. Not only are the characters compelling, the movie managed to tell a very delicate story without being sensational, disturbing without intention to shock. If the book is the same, it must pack quite a wallop.

I don’t want to give to much away, as a lot of the power in this film is the sense of loss and being lost, and by default, discovering. The film focuses on two boys. Neil, played by Jospeh Gordon Levitt, and Brian, played by Brady Corbet. Neil walks us through a sexual relationship that he has with his little league coach, and we see him later as the drug-taking hustler he has become. Brian, meanwhile, who was on Neil’s baseball team, is searching for 5 missing hours of his life, that he believes hold a secret to something wonderful. His main theory is alien abduction.

There are some great performances in this film: Elizabeth Shue as Neil’s mother, a heavy-drinker and promiscuous dater; Mary Lynn Rajskub playing a strange uptight farmgirl who believes she has been abducted by aliens (you will never think of alien abduction the same way again); Michelle Trachtenberg as Neil’s best friend and confidante.

The power in the film, though, is its use and look at sex. It functions as a drug, weapon, balm or enterprise to different characters in the film. And it seems at different times in this film seductive, painful, terrifying, soul-wounding. It is powerful to see a nascent, unapologized for sexuality in an eight year old boy, becoming aware of who he is attracted to—that is something I have never seen on film and something I related to, having been an eight year old gay boy starting to recognize those feelings. But it is also scary to see how those feelings, if in contact with an uncaring and truly disturbed adult, can be twisted and changed forever. These are the most graphic sequences of pedophilia I have ever seen or care to see. They are profoundly disturbing, but so necessary to this film. If you wondered how one experience could change someone forever, this film will graphically demonstrate it.

But the thing this film really has going for it is Joseph Gordon Levitt. His Neil is a mass of will, defiance, fear and pain. Watching him in different scenes with the men he picks up I was struck by how present he was in giving us a character who is living so completely on the edge, and, for all his bravado, is unsure of what he is doing. Though, once again, there are some scary, and not at all arousing sex scenes in this film, so be warned. We are kept off balance as much as he is. Most impressively, we can see why Neil would stay interesting to his friends, even though he mostly is defensive and walled-up. From his way of speaking barely moving his mouth, to his belligerent cockiness, he is fascinating.

Brady Corbet is also wonderful as Brian, the other boy searching for his missing time. It's a credit to him that you just want to take care of him, and try to make everything better. It's a sweet performance of a character who has internalized things in a very different way than Neil. I can’t say anymore except to say you should see this film, and this performance.

P.S. I am interested in this trend of brutalizing sex in the movies. It may be just indie films, but it seems to be happening more and more. As moviegoers, we’re kind of having our nose rubbed in it, for lack of a better word. I think with a lesser film-maker and actors, the sex in Mysterious Skin would have been unbearable, and much of it is by its nature already. I’ll have to write about this more, but I am interested in this fascination with showing unromanticized hurtful sex more and more in films. I wonder what that impulse is coming from? We all know it can be dissapointing, uncomfortable, and strange, but it seems that it is more and more in indy and foreign film. Hm.

Monday, June 06, 2005


So yesterday I eschwed the gym, yoga and any other responsibilites to go see Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. And I must say it was a good choice. Other than my inexplicable love for "Chick flicks", I also wanted to check out America Ferrara, who, after one film, has become someone I will go see a movie for. I wasn't disappointed. I found myself a little weepy a couple of times in the film, even though I knew I was being manipulated. I even rolled my teary eyes when easily one of the most contrived lines ever put on film was being said by a twelve year-old. But I was still weepy. And I loved every minute of it. Loved Alexis Bledel as well, playing the girl who goes to Greece only to be swept up in the romance of an impossibly handsome Greek Fisherman. What's not to love about that? Her stiffness worked perfectly in the role, and she reminds me of a young Audrey Hepburn--and I'm sure I'm not the only one. America Ferrara was wonderful as expected. Sure--there was a lot manufactured about it, but I just bought it, hook, line and sinker. And I amy see it again with a friend who wants to see it as well. I could definitely spend some more time with that Fisherman.

And, as an unexpected bonus, I saw a trailer for a movie with a most unfortunate title, but one that I will be in line to see on opening day. Diane Lane as a divorcee, Eliabeth Perkins as her best friend, Dermot Mulroney as a divorced dad and--big drum roll--JOHN CUSACK as a possible love interest. As for actors I will go see in just about anything, John Cusack tops the list. I would have jumped up and cheered in the theater, if it were not for the cool reception I would have gotten from all of the 14 year old girls surrounding me. John Cusack--can't wait. The movie, unfortunately, is titled Must Love Dogs.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Tinka tinka tink

I don't really like to write about my life, but i have to say I am bored out of my mind today at work, and also slightly addled that I will need a new job in a month, as this one is ending. I am finding it challenging to remain hopeful, and also faced again with that renewable, annoying question from one and all (including myself): "What do you want to do?" Ugh--if I knew that, I'd be well on my way. I have inklings, but I don't think I'll know until it's done. I feel like Cinderella in "Into the Woods"--"But how can you know what you want 'til you get what you want and then see if you like it?" Ah, Sondheim.

Meanwhile--to the ridiculous. I went to a press screening for Bewitched last night, the new Nicole Kidman/Will Farrell movie. Always fun to brush up against that wierd Hollywood i-know-someone-you-don't-know-and-am-trying-really-hard-to-impress-you-but-seem-like-I'm-not vibe that goes into any strange orchestrated Film World event. But I digress.

Althought there was a great moment when the man who removed the reserved tape and sat behind us was asked to move, as his seat was for press. He argues and argued, finally asking for his money back for the time he stood in line. For a free movie. You can't make this stuff up.

I didn't expect much from this movie, as I'm not the biggest Nicole Kidman fan. It occured to me last night that the last two films I actually have seen in the theatre are hers--as "The Interpreter" was the one before this. In that, I felt she was acting with her beauty--or perhaps she just can't get past it. It's part and parcel of how she is. I think the most I have liked her ever was in "The Hours", and perhaps because she didn't look like herself. Who knows?

In Bewitched, Nicole plays Isabelle, a witch who wants to be mortal, and ends up doing a remake of Bewitched that she is hornswaggled into by the sleazy Jack Wyatt (Farrell), a movie star on his way down. Hilarity ensues. I actually found myself laughing a lot in this film, mainly from the great delivery from some top supporting actors (Shirley MacLaine, Michael Caine, Jason Schwartzman, Kristin Chenoweth, Katie Finneran, Stephen Colbert). The first scene with Kidman and Kristin Chenoweth was one of my favorites in the film. The biggest surprise was how good Nicole was at comedy. She has good timing, and she's completely charming. The biggest probelm for me was believing that somehow this character had left most of her brain somewhere else, perhaps at home with her hat and broom. But still, it's light comedy, and in that it mostly succeeds.

Mostly, because there are a couple of mis-steps. The great thing about this film is that you get to see a bit of the old Bewitched, and remember how wonderful everyone was. The film plays on that as much as it can. The filmmakers make a decision though, to put a couple of key plot points into the hands of Aunt Clara and Uncle Arthur. Unfortunately, Marion Lorne and Paul Lynde, both being dead, were not available. So, unfortunately, we get a couple of cut-rate versions. I was confused by the ending, wondering if Uncle Arthur was supposed to be real or not, and who he was. I suppose we were to believe that these were not Samantha's Uncle Arthur and Aunt Clara, but two people who were kind of stand-ins in the way that Kidman and Farrell are standins for Montgomery and York/Sargent. I have now spent more time than the fimmakers trying to work that out, I think. The film, for a long time, gets by on the charm of its stars, and the nostalgia factor. And the fact that they don't try to make you believe that anyone is playing the characters you so fondly remember. When they do, it's just not so good. Marion Lorne and Paul Lynde were brilliant, individual comedians with years of practice and their own well-rehearsed schtick. These new two don't measure up. I feel sorry for them having had to do it in the first place.

We are given some glimpses into the show within the show, and I kind of wanted more of that and less of a love story. But then again, I'm sure it's because the question of how to ever remake that series is one of the most interesting questions of the film.

Other than that, though, there are some genuinely funny moments, and two very charming leads. And hey, I think I enjoyed it more than the Interpreter. And at this point, that nose wriggling sound effect is hard-wired into everyone's brain-- it just takes you back. I kind of wished we all been sitting in a theatre watching old Bewitched episodes.