Saturday, June 04, 2005

Cinderella Man and Barb resolving a huge, REALLY BIG, profound thing about stories

I like Ron Howard's latest offering very much. Cinderella Man has much to recommend it. The story offers a simple heroism (and equally unambiguous bad guy), a quiet patriotism, and a linear structure that all feels very much like a movie from Hollywood's Golden Age. The directing is supremely competent, the beats and stakes and plot-points are all where they should be.

The main performances are stellar - especially from Paul Giamatti, as the main character's manager. Wow. Somebody wrote somewhere that Giamatti perfectly channels a 1930's man, and I was intrigued by that description of a performance. But it's really true and defines his performance here; you just have to experience it. If Giamatti doesn't get an Oscar nod, I give up.

And, of course, there is Russell Crowe, who some how manages to change his whole way of carrying himself with each new part. Honestly, it looked to me like he changed the shape of his head for this part -- even though I know that isn't possible. He is truly the most talented actor of this generation.

Zellweger doesn't have too much to do, but she does it well, as always.

My main problem with Cinderella Man is that it's about boxing. Hence, the heroism of the main character revolves around his success in beating other men's faces to a bloody pulp. As a secondary high-stakes goal, he also sets new standards in hitting hard to the body and breaking ribs. The movie tries to set his heroism up as a man conquering fear...but yeah, he still triumphs by nearly killing other guys. I loved so much of this movie, but I hate, hate, hate watching long sequences in which two men hit each other harder and harder in close-up. I hate watching men spit bloody water into pans. I hate watching other men sop off caked blood from the gladiators' faces. It's exciting to watch in a perverse way. And I hate that.

So, my problem is less with the film here, and more with the sport it showcases. I can't see how boxing is something Christians can defend. Self-defense is morally legitimate, but, as Giamatti's character notes in one scene, "We both know what we are talking about here, and it ain't pugilism."

If you can stand the boxing stuff, this is a good movie which is overall inspirational as far as the human spirit and love of family stuff goes. It is a much better Depression-era piece than was Seabiscuit, basically, because this movie tells the story of the Depression through one family's plight. Seabiscuit did it through those awful, intrusive newsreel intercuts.

But, the best thing I have to say about Cinderella Man is a thought process that was sparked by the movie.

Leaving the theater, I gave the movie a thumbs-up, but I couldn't help feeling something was missing in the piece. I feel this way about most of Ron Howard's movies. ANd that is, there was nothing left for me to do after the movie was over. There was nothing left to puzzle over with friends. The most my friends and I could do was re-experience moments of the film. But there was no thematic stuff for us to argue.

This "total resolution filmmaking" is a particular problem of Howard's, in which he basically doesn't trust his audience is going to get stuff. So, he lays everything all out moment by moment using flashback connections and dialogue. He gets out of scenes just when they start to get ambiguous and sticky. Something is always missing in his movies that keeps you from throwing your hands up in the air and saying, "Hurrah for Karamazov!" And I think I figured out what it is. And this has HUGE ramifications for Act One, if I have any say in it.

What's missing in Cinderella Man, that keeps it from brilliance, is mystery.

Mystery. Something beyond mere material or emotional or psychological cause and effect. Human beings are a kind of creature that seeks to know. And yet, we do not have the ability to fit everything in our heads. So, we are drawn to the One who has all the answers. "We are restless, until we rest in Thee." In other words, we are drawn to mystery because our nature seeks to resolve it.

Hence, there is nothing as unsatisfying for us as a story that leads to the finite. A good story is one that leads to the edges of the infinite. It leads us into the depths and scariness and power of a question, not an answer.

The key to a good story is the way it incorporates mystery.

This is wonderful to me, because it makes mystery "a thing" or at least "an element". The secular mind sees mystery as a vacuum or void.

I can't say more about this right now because it is hitting me like such an incredible epiphany. And I feel reverence about it. Which leads to falling silent. Before a mystery.


P.S. (Added Monday, June 6) More on mystery...

Human beings need stories not to provide answers, but to make us comfortable with our lot in life as limited creatures.

It all goes back to Genesis. The ultimate temptation for every person is the rejection of our dependent creaturehood: "You shall be like gods!" God is the only One for Whom there are no mysteries. For us, on the otherhand, life is a matter of bowing gracefully before the melodies that are too delicate for our hearing, and before immense things that we can only see from one side, and before spiritual realities that our bodies distract us from perceiving, and before very old legacies that are new to us, and before minute complexities that we are too far-sighted to see.

Stories are supposed to acclimate us to the omnipresence of mystery as our lot in life. They are supposed to lead us to the peace that most things are too big for us, and that that is okay. As my friend Karen Hall says, "I may not know the answer, but Somebody does." As C.S. Lewis said, "We read to know we aren't alone." And this is what we get from stories too. That somebody else has encountered a particular mystery. We are all in this together. So, you don't have to jump off a roof.

As writers, we don't share THE answers, because we will never fully sound any reality. We share "what we know to be true" always aware that our experience and information is the tip of the ice berg. We share something true about living with the mystery. The mystery remains.

324 comments:

1 – 200 of 324   Newer›   Newest»
Dee said...

What an excellent review, and I will not forget the epiphany concerning the Necessary Ingredient. That thought has opened a door for me in observing my own story, written by and hopefully directed by, God.

Brown Line said...

An interesting comment about Ron Howard's movies. I, for one, really loved Apollo 13, but Howard made one small change to the story that bothered me. It's the scene where Marilyn Lovell is listening to the NASA squawk box as her husband's crippled spacecraft is circling around the Moon. In the movie, the Marilyn Lovell character breaks down and cries; however, in Jim Lovell's book Lost Moon, on which the movie was based, Marilyn Lovell said that she prayed. A small change, and crying is certainly easier to project on the screen than prayer is; but Howard purposely edited out a scene of prayer, and lost the chance to suggest that perhaps there's more to the story than the skill of engineers and the courage of pilots. And in so doing, he narrows the story - and his own art.

David Hart said...

Can you give good examples of popular secular movies that have a good sense of mystery?

Michael D. Harmon said...

Everyone's going to laugh, but the first and last Indiana Jones movies both portrayed direct divine intervention in the affairs of men -- and the result was to reward the "good" and punish the evil characters. Indeed, the fate of the divine objects (Ark and Grail) remains mysterious, and God acts for His own motives. It's rare to see movies so directly involve the hand of God in the resolution of their plots.

Marc said...

Is it the sense of mystery that make some of the films from M. Night Shymalan successful?
[I'm a new visitor, over from 'Mere Comments', so I don't know your feelings about Shymalan. Hope I'm spelling his name right.] Movies like Sixth Sense and Unbreakable take a normal environment and inject mysterious elements, such as frustrated dead people and untapped superhuman talents.

There are people who don't like the "blanks" in the Bible (i.e. who did Cain and Able marry?), and point to those mysteries as reasons for them to reject God's Word. Gnosticism has been around for a long time, and shows no sign of leaving.

Anonymous said...

I agree with what you say about mystery being a necessary part of a great story (and the Great Story). It reminds me of how Lucas killed any magic or interest in the Star Wars saga (for me) when in Episode 1 he introduced midichlorians as a pseudo-scientific "explaination" of the Force and whips out a handheld blood tester to see if Anakin has enough.
True, in Episodes 4, 5, and 6 the Force was mostly warmed over, watered down Buddhism/New Age sprititualism, rather than robust Christianity, but AT LEAST it left a sense of mystery in the story. By Epidode 1, 2, and now 3 we simply have the logical working out of genetically superior family lines duking it out for political power over the galaxy, getting untold crowds of stormtroopers, rebels, and ordinary people massacered in the process!
Ann

alaiyo said...

Interesting remarks and, I think, profoundly true. I don't know if you have read Roger Rosenblatt, but I've posted some excerpts from an article of his which addresses this very issue in terms of literary criticism and the purpose of literature. Sorry I don't know how to make a link, but here's the URL: http://inscapes.blogspot.com/2005/05/function-of-criticism-at-present-time.html

May God continue to bless your work!

Beth

robc said...

I agree with others that your review was excellent and contained my sentiments totally except for the last bit about there not being a "mystery" element to the film. Some films lend themselves to having mystery and others do not. This one did not. I did not feel it was lacking in mystery, because I don't look for mystery in every film I see. This was a story about a real hero in American history. I thought the movie is more like the movie "Rocky" but much much better. Congratulations to Ron and Russell!

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