Tag Archives: SXSW

THE FILMMAKER’S PRAYER: CINEMA & RELIGION by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Excerpt from THE FILMMAKER'S PRAYER

© Philip J. Hohle

     . . . According to Barna and Gallup polls, most of the residents in the U.S. are religious—or at least, we claim Christianity or some other mainstream faith-based worldview. Is it not strange then, that filmmakers often avoid addressing anything serious about religion in their movies?  At times, religion does play some positive minor role in the plot, but religiosity is more often the cause of the antagonist’s opposition to the less-religious protagonist than the reverse. It has become self-evident; religion is too complicated or fragmented for a scriptwriter to use as background for her characters. In making a character too religious, the writer runs the risk of losing some of the consubstantiation a viewer needs in order to like a character.

     In spite of filmmaker’s reluctance to make the celluloid sacred, I will argue in this book that films are full of religion. Both unconsciously and consciously, filmmakers infuse religion into the story in subtle ways, which can be missed unless the viewer is able to interpret the film on a less conventional level. Furthermore, I propose that if the viewer is not aware of the filmmaker’s religious sense-making within their created world, they are more subject to influence or even conversion. Considering the power of film, one can argue that the filmmaker is today’s tent-revival evangelist. But of course, most of this influence is worked in the unconscious and not always recognized in a conventional read of the film.

   In reading on, there will be some terms I use often that help shape the argument. As a matter of fact, Cinema & Religion is the sequel to Lenses, my previous book revealing ten perspectives one can use to interpret and make sense of movie narratives. . . .

[section omitted]

. . . This brings us back to the fundamental premise of this book. Films are full of ideology, and that ideology is often an identifiable worldview that is promoted as passionately as any religion. In these pages, we will compare the values, assumptions, and beliefs represented in films that, not only entertain us, but they comfort or disrupt us; they instruct and motivate us; they help us make sense of our lives. I hope that sounds like religion to you.

This book will:

  • Identify the key religious themes commonly found in narratives.
  • Show how these themes can be found and examined in a film.
  • Illustrate how the religious perspective will reinterpret the role and function of characters, the meaning of signs, and even the plot found in a movie.
  • Help the reader compare and contrast the ideological messages some popular movies to the divine story in Christianity.
  • Advance your emerging fluency as a lay critic, becoming more confident in recognizing the ideology and theology of a film.
  • Help you find a voice in communicating a case for its value or lack of value to our world. Ultimately, you can help shape the conversation over the film’s contribution to our culture’s grand narrative.
  • Motivate you to respond to an exigence (an urgent issue) raised by the film viewing experience.
  • Affirm and strengthen your appreciation for the power of film and the ability of the filmmaker to bring the viewer to experience transcendence in the story.

LENSES: Ten Ways to Interpret the Movies You Love (and some you hated) by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

LENSES book cover man with film running in his head

Excerpt from the Introduction

© Philip J. Hohle

...This remarkable influence is why it is so vital that viewers learn to read film. It is not so we can all have the same interpretation. I think of the old school literature professor who refuses to recognize any alternative interpretation of a classic poem. Recall the first literature class John Keating has with his students in Dead Poet’s Society4. Keating has his students rip out pages in the textbook that proposed the goodness and truth of a poem could be measured scientifically—leading to a singular, objective interpretation.

Conversely, the lessons in this book serve more like a guide to make us more sensitive—more aware of both the effect proposed by the filmmaker (e.g., the film craft as a noun) as well as the affect film has on us (as in a verb). In becoming literate, we become aware of the power we give film. But do not worry that your nuanced sensitivity will spoil your enjoyment—not like how a backstage tour of Disneyland diminishes the magic. Instead, I argue our literacy makes film even more powerful. We become more aware of the subtleties most viewers miss. Knowing more about the craft makes one appreciate it so much more when the film is indeed well made.

     Becoming fluent means you can help others toward a higher appreciation of such well-made movies. Fluency for me means one can interpret film for the benefit of others—to heighten their own literacy. This increased competency can mean you will more fully love the good movies you love. Likewise, you will help open other’s eyes to seeing disruptive films for what they really are. To our friends, parents, children, and the stranger in line at the film festival— we are critics. And the more fluent we are, the more we provide useful lenses for others to use.

Lenses are what this book is finally all about—ten sets of glasses one can try on in order to make sense of a film. Metaphorically, this book is an exercise in showing the changes of hue and texture each lens affords. Thus, selecting an appropriate lens becomes critical to a fulfilling and helpful critique of a film. Not only will each lens reveal a different story in the same movie, each person also employs personal filters that may blur or sharpen what the filmmaker intended. Being aware of one’s filters can reveal something about us as they simultaneously serve to help illuminate the film...

4. Dead Poet’s Society, directed by Peter Weir (1989; Touchstone Home Entertainment, 2012), BluRay.

Find this book on AMAZON in both paperback and eReader editions.

Lenses: Entertainment as a Second Language

LENSES Informal Class for Community Learners

 


Parabolic Media is pleased to announce the return of Lenses, the popular Informal Classes for the Community starting Monday, September 9th.  6:30 PM at The Moviehouse & Eatery. For the Fall 2019 LENSES Series, there is no registration fee. Simply purchase your ticket at the box office or online on the Moviehouse & Eatery website. The series runs Sept. 9 through Nov. 18 (excluding Veterans Day on Nov. 11).

New for the Fall 2019 season, participants will be viewing CURRENT films being offered by The Moviehouse & Eatery. Due to fluctuations in distribution, the movie, start time, and theater number will be announced no earlier than one week prior to each class. Watch our web page for updates. Note that the opinions expressed in LENSES do not necessarily reflect the position of The Moviehouse's owners, managers, or employees.

Poster announcing series on Monday nights at the movies house and eatery.

 

Participants will explore and practice ten valuable lenses that can make them fluent in their media consumption—better at making sense of the messages and meanings behind their favorite movies. Improve your media literacy—become fluent in reading popular film.

The Lenses series is parallel to the Cinema and Religion series offered at The Moviehouse each spring. Focusing on film, the two classes provide examinations of this compelling media form in the context of an actual movie theater with an audience—the most pure and powerful viewing environment.

For more information, visit the FAQ page.

 

Class logo

Short Tragedies

A Review of Independent Shorts (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

As a whole, those who selected the narrative short films for the 2018 SXSW festival are apparently obsessed with themes of gender identity. I have selected a number of these shorts to analyze for the deeper questions they raise—along with the obvious conflicts and concerns more conventionally found in the story. It is often the less noticeable films that make for the richest philosophical discussion.

These shorts do not represent the entire body of work being produced (the number of stories being made into short films is almost unfathomable). Neither does the examination here represent all the shorts submitted to film festivals—or even one festival. What it does represent are the choices this festival’s programmers made.

Inclusion in such a prestigious festival is more than just exposure for the filmmaker. It can be an attempt by the programmers to make a profound social statement. For SXSW 2018 there were only 20 shorts selected out of 3,600 entries (according to one programmer at a screening). As such, the prevalence of these themes could be taken as a representative sample among those included. While I am not privileged to know for certain, my instincts tell me they are not. As the programmer explained, they chose films “that will change your point of view.” The selection of these cinematic voices automatically implies that other voices, those not included, are marginalized. It would be interesting to know what those voices said.

An inclusion makes a statement that the subject matter, and the treatment of such, deserve the attention of, if not the public, at least the critic at this moment in time in this setting. I will note in this and other reviews that this alternative lens is not new. I recently this quote: “When a journalist becomes an activist, they are no longer journalists, but politicians.” The same applies to filmmakers; there may be rhetoric hidden under the screen's canvas—and if can taint the art.

If there is a cultural sea-change underway, the narrowed selection serves to further distance viewers from anything the previous generation held as true. No doubt, this purpose may be a subtle whisper from the infamous punk manifesto that defined the Cinema of Transgression. That statement was not so subtle: the aim of film should be to disrupt and disturb.

The reader may consider if there will be any conventions left to transgress before the beast has to turn and eat its own tail. If you consider the conventional social order to be immoral, this deconstruction is a good thing. In any case, the matter is not yet settled, so before we resign our society to this archipelago, there may be a few more propositions found in these films that need sober analysis.

Review of short: Men Don't Whisper

Understand that this reviewer is not gay. As such, it is not easy for him to understand the point of LBGTQ love stories. Like any character portrayed on screen, if one cannot feel the emotion or at least envision the bonds they feel, the lack of empathy will diminish the impact of the narrative. Perhaps that inability disqualifies me from making commentary on this short film. For better or for worse, I shall give it a go.

In light of these prevailing inabilities, the goal of a new wave of LBGTQ filmmakers seems to be an attempt to get straight folks to understand something. Perhaps it is for us to stop thinking this alternative relationship is different (ironically, it was commonly called queer in my day, and the term seems to stick).

I propose that this disruptive rhetoric is found more often in independent shorts as opposed to longer, studio films. Due to the financial stakes, executives of those projects can hardly gamble with the chance that the story will make the audience queasy. On the other hand, the independent filmmaker making low-budget shorts can bring these stories easily to the screen without the normal filtering.

Men Don't Whisper can be categorized as one in a genre where characters search for an elusive masculine identity. Of course, this is a theme for both gay and straight filmmakers, and the profound questions here are rather universal. In Men Don’t Whisper, two young men (a gay couple) realize they do not know which of them is the “man” in the relationship. Significantly, the film is centered on their attempt to find out which of them is masculine enough to claim that role.

This couple comes to the conclusion that, not unlike the perceptions of many straight men, only one who has sex with a woman can claim the title and role of a man. The film is mildly amusing as these two awkwardly attempt what is so unnatural to them—to pick up two girls in a hotel bar and take them upstairs for some easy sex. Without spoiling the ending, let us at least say that the encounter does not go well.

On a conventional level, this film is an exploration of what limits remain to the concept of masculinity in a postmodern world. When one studies the thematic trends in filmmaking, it is apparent that the quest to become a man has become a nostalgic artifact. While no couple can claim that each has a perfectly equal role—that is, one is always more dominant than the other—the once-honored character of the strong male has been eliminated from many current film narratives, especially in the shorts. In truth, a character like that would be portrayed more likely as the antagonist to one the more egalitarian protagonist. Critics embracing feminist ideology would argue that this he-man’s departure is good riddance. Thus the situation becomes an absurdist comedy when you find these two eunuch-like guys going old school to resolve a bet.

On a deeper level, the question of masculinity in this film becomes even more profound. I find the desire for someone to fill the role is significant in the context of today’s arguments over gender roles. Even in a liberated society—represented by an independent film free from the constraints of marketable conventions—the players ask the same uncomfortable question we are all asking right now.

I like to phrase the query in the popular song by Paula Cole from twenty years ago: “Where have all the cowboys gone?” Where are the men that use their sexuality, not simply to please oneself, but to serve and fulfill the woman—giving her what she really wants and needs? I have heard it said; you have to water the garden if you expect to enjoy the fruit. It becomes a vicious cycle; the boys cannot enjoy girls because they cannot give them pleasure. Of course, this is fiction, but if the two characters could, they might find their manly service to be fulfilling and enjoyable in return. Perhaps it is a universal problem among millennials; this generation has never learned how to make love. These casual relationships seem to be for the sole purpose of providing selfish pleasure and nothing else.

As many filmmakers propose, there can never be a masculine male without the character devolving into just another boy appeasing his unrestrained libido. One of the girls in this fiction exclaims, “Just having sex with a woman does not make you a man!” Of course, the journey these two girls are on provide their personal tale of tragic love, but we shall save that for another post. Still, their statement is profound. It is not just having sex that makes a man—but pleasing the opposite sex may have something to do with it. In any case, significantly, the story stops short of revealing the truth. No one gets it.

Back to the cowboy metaphor, we know the answer to the question: the romantic male-female love myth was busted in Brokeback Mountain. Still, it is significant that many filmmakers continually bring up the same question—where have all the cowboys gone? Popular western culture has succeeded in recoding the very image and idea of the cowboy as the hero. The strong, male protector no longer exists; instead, it is the male who needs to be rescued and mothered—or almost in the case of this couple, fathered. Here I am referring to the feminist take on Freudian psychology; the daughter looks for an image of her father in the boy she considers for a mate (that is, whatever healthy or unhealthy imprint the father made in her life). If these two guys are feminized, why would it be strange that they would be looking for the same archetypical father figure in each other? In any case, they both realize that neither can fill that role.

Essentially, the film proposes that having a partner play this role in a relationship does not matter anymore—a masculine man is no longer needed. Moreover, no one really misses him.

Or do we? The question will not be put to rest anytime soon.

Review of Are We Good Parents?

Another short included at the 2018 SXSW film conference posed good questions for anyone raising or who has raised a child. In recent decades, the role of the father has come under fire (think, Married with Children from the 1980s). In pop culture's stories, we continue to question the role of the parent in setting limits for their children.

In this short, a young teen daughter makes the announcement she is going on a date with someone named Ryan. What follows is a comedic life-examining by her champion-level liberal parents. The couple is filled with angst over the apparent choice of their child to date the opposite sex. Ironically, these same parents seem to have a closed heterosexual relationship. In a most Portlandia fashion, the two struggle with the possibility that they may not have eliminated all the heterosexual bias in the life of their child.

Audiences at these festivals seem to be quite open-minded (dare I say uber-liberal?). One can interpolate the political temperature from whatever gets laughs, groans, and by what questions they ask of the filmmakers after the screening. In this film, the audience found an opportunity for abundant laughs. It becomes evident they were able to scoff at the caricature of themselves without taking offense. On the conventional level, it was an exercise in poking fun at the far extreme of this kind of parenting—a cautionary tale for those on both sides of the political divide.

On a deeper level, the film raises the question of bias in another more limiting way. These are the liberal versions of helicopter parents, those who strive to protect their child from making wrong choices that they fear would be harmful—at least in the parent’s definition of harm. Here are some of the moral values/assumptions evident in this couple's parenting:

  • It is unhealthy and perhaps wrong for a child to fear the judgment of parents.
  • The sexual identity of a child is totally their choice (though this couple shows their bias in questioning that possibility).
  • When nature stacks the deck in one direction (your birth gender), ethical parents must do what they can to even the expected tug-of-war in the mind of the child.
  • A seemingly too easy choice to be heterosexual can be interpreted as immature thinking—or even rebellion.
  • An alternative choice in gender identity is a tribute to competent parenting (ergo, the title of the film)

Intentional or not, the filmmaker’s comments after the screening put the film into a new perspective. In making the film, she wondered if 18 was too late to come out as gay. Many would agree that children are becoming sexually aware earlier in life than kids in previous generations. Still, it is hard to remain neutral on this issue when one is aware of the problem of sexual abuse among children of all ages. It is one thing for a child to experience a natural and even healthy sexual awakening when the time is right. It is quite another thing when this exploration becomes abuse, and this difference must be guarded zealously. It is unquestionably right to protect kids from inappropriate adult intervention. Gay or straight, we all must monitor this boundary; if not, we allow predators a free pass to inflict harm on the innocent.

This film short raises some good questions. While we heap disdain on the undue influences of pop culture, we seldom consider if such a child’s decision on sexual orientation may be constructed on this same house of cards. Moreover, even kids are susceptible to confirmation bias and post-purchase rationalizations once they take a public stand on their identity (after they come out). If this way of thinking is not good for adults, should we, like the parents in this short, intervene to balance our child’s thinking?

Review of Tangles and Knots

Another short screened at SXSW18 was a gut-wrenching exploration of what is proper in a parent-child relationship. Referring to the bullet point made above about the taboo of parental judgment, this film can be perceived as a cautionary tale for those who forgo the traditional parent-child relationship in favor of a friend-friend arrangement.

In spite of her natural beauty, a teenage girl seems to be socially awkward among her peers. Her mother throws an alcohol-and-drug-infused pool party to prime the pump for her daughter. The strategy falters from the start, and ultimately, the mother takes matters into her own hands on behalf of her daughter. Alternatively, perhaps, it is her own needs that fuel the pitiful choices the mother makes as the party winds down.

The twist in this short is how that friend-friend relationship itself is questioned. In truth, even a good friend will challenge our thinking and our choices. Beyond seeing her daughter as a friend, the mother appropriates the life of her child. As such, like a few of the other narratives at the festival depict, the ownership of the child’s identity becomes a site of conflict.

Certainly, this is a universal, time-honored theme in drama: a child leaving the parent and becoming a separate person. Significantly, this tale is set in the context of a single or divorced mother clearly wearing the yoke of her own unfulfilled dreams as she further burdens her daughter. The dysfunctional twist in this film is that the mother’s vicarious possessing becomes an expression of her own self-loathing.

Sadly, festival viewers heard that this film is based on the filmmaker’s own experience as a daughter of such a mother. Unfortunately, these troubled relationships are quite common in society. This short film is a shocking tragedy, best considered in the same genre of film that explores the ongoing consequences of broken marriages.

Where’s Coach?

Review of Write When You Get Work (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Viewers might consider this film as another in the genre of anti-hero comedy. When it is difficult to place the actions in some framework of reality, the plot becomes absurd, and absurdity can only be placed in the comic genre. Often, the absurdity comes from a juxtaposition of ideas that seem incompatible—in this case, the good-hearted criminal.

Continue reading Where’s Coach?

The Return of Religion

Review of Jinn (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

It is refreshing to see well-developed African-American characters in a narrative, and this story is one of the best in avoiding stereotypes. Not surprisingly, Jinn is written and produced by a group of emerging Black filmmakers in the U.S. What adds to the quality of this film is that the narrative provides a refreshing take on the troubled encounters the whole world seems to have with religion these days.

Many young people in our post-modern society represent a second generation (or more) of people living their whole lives unchurched. Certainly, after a generation or two growing up without religious traditions, these descendants must find the idea of returning to a religious lifestyle quite strange. It is fascinating to consider why, after decades of freeing their minds (and bodies) from religion, we find people now eager to submit themselves to the restrictions of the most strict of religious practices. Such a leap of faith is portrayed as genuinely fulfilling for the characters in this story. What makes Jinn stand out is that it unfolds in the context of Islam.

Jade, a divorced mother (Simone Missick), is a television personality in Los Angeles. After years of drifting, she has taken a leap in her decision to identify herself as Muslim. What is particularly significant is that such a decision is considered irrevocable in the religion—backsliders are branded apostates. Not only do they fail themselves, one would insult the religion and the prophet Mohammed if they changed their mind. In fact, apostasy is considered a crime in some parts of the world.

Obviously, one can see the potential conflicts in a situation where people who jump from one fad to the next find themselves confronted with the possibility of taking one final leap. While people will mark their bodies with a tattoo that will last a lifetime, this same permanency is seldom applied to relationships—with each other, as in a marriage, but also those between a person and a god or a religious way of life.

The film becomes even more interesting when the point of view shifts to Jade's daughter Summer (Zoe Renee). The girl is a typical teenager living in the city—she enjoys sexy fashion and expressive dance. She is fully religious in only her social media practice; she knows almost nothing about Islam. When she agrees to follow her mother into the faith, the depths of the commitment only come upon her gradually. She reaches a point where she can no longer live in both worlds at the same time.

The title Jinn comes from para-supernatural beings described in Islam (or at least in this film) as being created by smokeless fire (light). They can be mistaken as human—those who are created from clay. These creatures have the ability to bring a fire that will scorch the world around them, or they can bring a fire that simply warms life. Summer is convinced that she is Jinn, seeing herself as providing the warming light of love that must transcend the limitations of religion.

Refreshing on so many levels, the religious theme will be relevant to any faith tradition. Shape-shifting adults often struggle with their personal commitments as they also consider what religious legacy they hope their children and grandchildren will embrace.

Alien Incarnation

Review of First Light (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Cast members from film sitting on a porch.Another in the science fiction genre where an alien race brings a blessing to a troubled earth, First Light has some interesting company. The film Arrival is one good example. In many of these tales, only certain characters have the sensitivity to hear or understand the message brought by these alien angels of mercy.

First Light is set in a town situated somewhere out West. Two teenagers are brought together after a strange set of events one night at a party outside of town. Few people in the town seem to be aware of, much less concerned about, the patterns of strange lights that appeared in the sky,
Continue reading Alien Incarnation

Trailer Park Parent Trap

Review of Sadie

By Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

A predominant theme found in the narrative features (and many of the narrative shorts) at SXSW 2018 was that of broken families and abandoned, troubled kids. Sadie is a film that uses tragedy to analyze the consequences of a dysfunctional family experience imposed on kids.

Oddly, the film made me think of the old Haley Mill’s classic, The Parent Trap. In that story, twins use diabolical-yet-innocent tactics to scare away the new love interest of their divorced dad in the hope that they can reunite their parents. In Sadie, we have a teen who likewise takes action to keep her mother and father together. However, dad seems more interested in fighting in the Middle East than caring for his family. Nevertheless, Sadie ( is fiercely loyal to her dad and appalled that her mother (Melanie Lynskey) would consider cheating on him.

This film, be warned, is a tragedy on many levels. Elsewhere among these recent reviews, I take on the growing identity crisis among men—especially fathers—who in spite of their best efforts, cannot seem to connect with those they are called to love, protect, and serve. This film flips that desire, depicting a man who seems completely uninterested in keeping or restoring those familial connections. In either case, this balanced communion is generally missing among the assortment of male characters. The festival’s films do a great job in exploring this disability. In the case of Sadie, it is appropriately framed in a tragedy, as the teen takes matters into her own hands.

At one of the premiere screenings, an audience member asked a most insightful question of the young actress (Sophia Mitri Schloss) who plays Sadie: “Do you think she should be punished for what she has done?” After giving it some thought, she offered, “No. Because I think she has suffered enough.” This insightful exchange raises flags as more of our society's children will surely continue to suffer from abandonment and abuse in the future. The question will arise: “Can we or will we hold them accountable for their actions when the parents are so easily blamed?”

 

Non-typical Bucks

A review of Legacy of the White Tail Deer Hunter (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Buck (Josh Brolin) is a legendary hunter staring in his own video series. His loyal cameraman Don (Danny McBride) accompanies Buck on a special hunting trip—the first for his son Jaden (Montana Jordan). The hunter’s situation in life is reflected in an old buck deer they site early on the trip—the animal has a huge rack and a sad, grey-looking face. Buck categorizes him as a non-typical specimen, and certainly, this describes Buck well. This film stays within the pattern of films at SXSW 2018 dealing with broken families and the difficult rites of passages for the kids in such a situation.

Continue reading Non-typical Bucks

Where the Wind Bloweth

A Review of Galveston (SXSW 2018)

by Philip J. Hohle, Ph.D.

Photo of two people on beachSet against the backdrop of a city known for its hurricanes, Galveston is the place of refuge for an unlikely couple on the run from the mob. Working as a hitman, Roy is set up by his corrupt boss in New Orleans. In escaping the sting, he also rescues a prostitute by the name of Rocky. Reluctantly bringing her along, Roy chooses Galveston as their destination—a place where they can lay low. Along the escape route, they rescue her little sister Tiffany from the girl’s abusive step-dad.

Continue reading Where the Wind Bloweth