“The Future” is Uncertain, yet Smacks of Hope

The wife and I went on a mini-vacation to the Red River Gorge/ Natural Bridge area. We camped one night near Sky Bridge, then spent 3 days in a little cabin with no [working] TV or internet, and our cell phones barely worked. It was wonderful. I was forced to rediscover books, like that guy at the ending of “The Cable Guy”, and I was so affected by Wendell Berry’s world that when we got back, I canceled my Netflix streaming account.

Oh, Netflix… We had some laughs. A George Thorogood song comes to mind:
“For 5 years she was so nice; Lawd, she was lovey-dovey…”
Except for us it was 5 months of at least 200 movies and TV episodes, averaging over a movie a day, with less than half of those being worth our time to begin with. Finally, as the sun rose over the hemlocks and birches, and the fog lifted from the lake below, it was revealed to me that you, Netflix, are a depraved, enabling succubus (which I might return to for the last seasons of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, don’t be angry). Until then, for the hours you’ve frittered away from me and my true love, I recommend that you roast comfortably in Gehenna, under the genre of “Dark, Cerebral Swedish Comic-Spoof”.

Smeagol is free! Or at least back to a reasonable, human schedule. Instead of spending 30 minutes trawling through 200,000 mediocre things to watch, or deciding which of about 100 classics to re-watch, we now wait for something we’re actually interested in to hit video or the cheap theater. God bless the Village 8. When I’m there, I feel like I’ve warped back to ’98 for a $3 matinee of some fantastic vision of the future. And lo’ and behold, that’s where we caught Miranda July’s latest, “The Future”.

I enjoyed it well enough, about the same as July’s previous film, “Me, You, and Everyone We Know.” Where both of July’s films are anchored by her too-clever-hipster introspectives, John Hawkes drives the story as a disillusioned, put-upon father in the first film. July’s counterpart in “The Future” is played soulfully by Hamish Linklater, who conveys equal parts wonder and horror at his newfound power to freeze and/or waste and/or speed up time itself. His girlfriend Sophie (July) has a similar ability in her heightened awareness of her and Jason’s (Linklater) speeding mortality. It’s left up to the viewer to decide whether or not such time-warping is a product of the characters’ actual supernatural abilities, or their colorfully tweaked imaginations. The central message of the film concerns how we manage or mismanage our time, specifically our time together, and explores how things might change according to the length of time given. July’s script is immediately engaging, with gems throughout, but her character felt too inconsistent- an introvert suddenly acting as an extrovert, for seemingly no reason other than to add conflict. To be fair, Sophie does later admit to Jason that she is “wild”.

Sophie and Jason want to adopt a cat named Paw-Paw (also played, in part, by July, for real), but must wait 30 days for his wounded paw to heal before bringing him home. That alone hit close to home for us- we adopted Mokey the Malefactress (see the banner above) almost a year ago, and our lives have been enriched since, I’ll admit. We almost lost her to a botched spay job, and I’ll go so far to say I’m glad she’s not dead. It only made her stronger… So, Paw-Paw shows up sporadically through the film, offering moments of zen on the nature of time, happiness, the afterlife, and so forth. [Spoiler-ish note: Don't be fooled by the trailer. If you overly-love cats or overly-hate performance art, you will despise this film. Just ask my wife.]

There’s a great bit early on in the film, also seen in the trailer, which relates to our recent experience “roughing it” in the Gorge. Sophie and Jason decide to reevaluate their lives and “clean house” before bringing Paw-Paw home. Sophie decides to cancel the internet, and informs Jason that they have about an hour to look up everything important before it’s shut off. As they scramble away at their laptops for a minute, Jason asks in a panic, “But what if there’s something we really need to know, like medical stuff or news?” Sophie responds with, “I thought about that, and we can go to the library, or just not know.” After another minute, they share a glance, and both shut their laptops long before the hour is up.
It’s this short scene, a disturbingly funny dance number, and Jason’s council with the old man that stuck with me the most. As for the latter, Jason meets Joe while soliciting to sell trees to help curb global warming, and finds a mystical connection with the old man. At one point, Joe prophesizes to Jason: “You’ll be together for a long time, and it just gets better… actually, you’re just in the middle of the beginning.”

Maybe I’m gleaning too much from the film’s title alone, but it did make me consider my own future. There’s an interesting branch of theology called “presentism” that skirts the endless lines of argument between determinism and free will. In brief, presentism states that the future simply does not exist as anything other than plans, concerns, and desires; God has no need of a physical, concrete future, and cares only for us here and now. C.S. Lewis preferred “eternalism” to what he called the “chronological snobbery” of presentism. The eternalist places God outside of time, viewing the past, present and future as “blocks” of one eternally present dimension, i.e. time (think of Billy Pilgrim and the Tralfamadorians “unstuck in time” in Slaughterhouse Five (also Jason in The Future, to a fault)). Not to say that the eternalist’s future is predetermined, since there is an endless number of future “blocks” or possibilities to be chosen freely. To me, both perspectives state the obvious, that the past informs the present into the direction of the future. Or, any prophecy or portent is reduced to God’s dynamic awareness of our present actions and thoughts, measured against his own, and against the past.

Man, weren’t we talking about a movie earlier? Well, to wrap this up, laboring over the arguments of eternalism and presentism wears me out. All I know is, when I do think of all the future possibles, I get anxious. I would do better to keep in mind what Christ said about the future:
“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34 NIV) I’ll take that advice over that of Fleetwood Mac. In the movie, Sophie and Jason were so wrapped in anxiety over their future that they neglected their immediate needs. They talk on and on about the changes they need to make before bringing Paw-Paw into their lives, but we never see them buy cat food or any other cat paraphernalia.

So, to my mind, the future acts best as a warning or a wish, i.e. a goal, like the Greek telos, or end. Telos is different from terminus, that other kind of end meaning a boundary, as in the end of the line. A terminus is always coldly final and static, whereas a telos can be eternal. The many things we surround ourselves with, all slouching toward a flying-cars future, are mere tools- means to that same telos. In this-here face-tweet-flix-droid-text.com multiverse, I feel like we’re talking to our friends and family less. We’re supposed to be more connected now than ever before with an explosion of media options. Yet the longer I spend using these tools, the more distracted I feel- perpetually attached and dependent on these things over their ultimate purpose: communicating with another real, living being. I’ve been choosing the means over their end. Hence the trip last month to the mountains, and the following cancelation of Netflix and facebook. I highly recommend it, at least give it try over a long weekend, for goodness sakes. It’s not that hard. Take a comfortable sleeping bag and as little else as possible (make sure the wife is cool with all this- take extra blankets). Learn to appreciate the things on the other side of your smartphone’s screen. Get a good tent, or sleep in your car for a night or two. Make some tuna salad and parmesan noodles from a pouch. Wash up at a Shoney’s or Flying J or something (don’t act so upity), then take on a short scenic trail or two, then come home, get pizza and turn everything back on if you must. It’s worth it. I see the future becoming more like that weekend- we’re outdoors more, and able to handle the weather. We’re making music, reading, and cooking our own food. We’re more inclined to speak slower (and yet more), face to face with one another, at least while our batteries charge.

The Beast and Dragon Adored

Happy belated Labor Day, folks. Pathetically, I had to work today, but I still managed to get a leg up on some movie releases. X-MEN: FIRST CLASS will be out on video this week, and I just might see it again. It’s definitely worth a watch for fun, but mostly for the parley between 30-somethings Xavier (James McAvoy) and Magneto (Michael Fassbender). I agree with much of what’s been said already about the film, e.g. Fassbender’s riveting effect in the “Boys From Brazil” bit and later scenes with Kevin Bacon, January Jones being dull and unnecessary, and McAvoy’s surprisingly good use of humor. I also felt that the “First Class” X-Kids either weren’t given enough background per character, or were just a few too many in order to do so. With the exception of Louisville’s own Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique, although I think she would have made a better Jean Grey, or Rogue (minus the Dolly Parton accent for once), or even Emma Frost, and if I haven’t betrayed my comic-book-geekery by now, I will take it to the grave. There were only a few other problems I had with the flick, mainly what happens to Darwin. That wasn’t fair, and he could’ve been put to much better use in future installments.

Oh, and Beast. Ol’ Hank McCoy, played by the kid from “About a Boy,” for some reason. Maybe because he’s pretty tall. He did an okay job with the role, but in a certain tense moment toward the big finale, I couldn’t help leaning over and yelling in my wife’s ear:

And if you happen to have been born post-80’s, this may help clear up the above reference.

Another Unasked Question for William Mapother

Some ideas started to bubble up as I was leaving the Baxter Theater after seeing ANOTHER EARTH, and I’ve done some research since then to bring them to light. I remember Mr. Mapother mentioning his work with the Louisville Film Society and the Flyover Film Festival, where Another Earth had its Louisville premiere back in June. This helped form my ultimate question, the one I wish I could have asked him during the Q&A:

Big studios come through town once in a blue moon to shoot horse racing movies, and those precious few scenes in or around Churchill Downs are all we get to see of Louisville or any part of the bluegrass region on the big screen in wide-release. What can we do to make Louisville a lasting center for film, utilizing the rest of the state as well?

Since time ran out before I could form this question, and since Mr. Mapother may never read this, I’ll take the liberty to make a humble suggestion in his place:

We have an enormous pool of talent and resources all over the commonwealth, but few driving incentives to produce original, quality films, even with the revamped tax incentive package offered by the Kentucky Film Office. I’m not sure building a studio between here and Lexington would help enough. I think that we’re still thirsting for original content, and local producers and independent filmmakers are struggling to find the right stories.

An annual, regional screenwriting contest sponsered by the Louisville Film Society and its supporters is our best bet. A recent search shows a few upcoming film festivals across the state, e.g. Louisville’s International Festival of Film, the 4th Annual Short Film and Video Showcase (both in October), and the River’s Edge FF in Paducah this November. But I see no screenwriting contests anywhere nearby. (If anyone gets word otherwise, let me know.)
Concerning submission guidelines for such a contest, the only major stipulation would be that a majority of the story be set in Kentucky. Similar rules can be found in other regional writing contests, especially for short fiction or creative non-fiction. Out-of-state writers can certainly contribute, we don’t want to alienate anyone. However, a story rooted in a Kentucky setting is doubly crucial if there is any hope of bringing production jobs to the state, not to mention the opportunity to showcase the beauty of the region to a potential world-audience.

There’s much to be said of our varied, unique locations. We have Cumberland Falls, Red River Gorge/ Natural Bridge and the rest of the Daniel Boone National Forest. Yes, we’re landlocked, but we also have more miles of moving water than any other state, including dozens of historical downtown waterfronts along the Kentucky and Ohio Rivers. We have the occasional dangerous ice-storm and threat of exploding mountains (to “keep the lights on,” don’t ya know) to serve as backdrop for any number of stories. Let’s get filmmakers out here. We can do thrillers and westerns here. We can do romantic comedies here, but for the grace of God, please, no. We can even do sci-fi, using former mountaintops on “reclaimed” land for a barren, alien desert-like locale. Trespass if you have to…

I’d like to see a Kentucky-made film reach theaters nation-wide at the rate of at least one a year. If every state would adopted the same efforts instead of allowing the “industry” to stay centralized in New York and L.A., we would get some of that good old-fashioned American competition going, and we should get many more quality films out of the mix. Louisville could very well be a place to shake things up in the film industry, especially with the support of the many filmmakers and actors who, like Mapother, still consider this home.

The Ten-tucky Festival of 10-Minute Plays

Not including Easter pageants and other various church plays, I’ve seen maybe eight plays in my life so far: about 4-5 while in high school, and 2-3 while attending UK. That being the case, it was a rare treat to see eight short plays in one night at the Bard’s Town Restaurant and Theater. I’d challenged myself in the past to get out to see more plays, especially small productions by local writers. When a friend of mine informed me that his script was one of those selected for the festival, I decided to show my support. That, and the cryptic abstracts provided online for each play in the series peaked my curiosity.

Having never been to the Bard’s Town beforehand, and shunning the use of a GPS, I ran a few minutes late. Imagine my shock at entering the dark upstairs room to find a man tied to a chair under the spotlight, being interrogated by a rather angry woman in a kitchen apron, holding an all-too-realistic butcher’s knife. “This is the play,” I hoped as I quietly took a seat, “and not the standard treatment for latecomers.” Such was the start of “Neighborly Do’s and Don’ts” by Brian Walker. A very funny story, if only to hear a couple of baby-boomers scream horrible things at each other in the throes of Girlscout Cookie-lust.

Tom Kerrigan’s “The Intruder”, Andrew Epstein’s “Wedding for Godot”, and Nadeem Zaman’s “Disappearances, or the Groom’s Shoes” all had great comedic moments, while Patrick Wensink’s “The Internet President” was hilariously depraved, while incorporating the audience as a cheering crowd during the debate. “Encounter at the Ink Spot” by Nancy Gall-Clayton made excellent use of the venue and props, addressing the abysmal plight of writer’s block, and including several local references that were admittedly obscure to me. I’d like to see more from this local playwrite.

Alex Lee Morse’s “Over” stood out as the only serious piece, and made for what I considered the festival’s most moving performances from actors Ryan Watson and Megan Brown. The tragicomic dialogue in “Over” would stir nostalgia and draw empathy from anyone with half a heart.

“Love Religiously” by Doug Schutte ended the evening on a note both heartfelt and madcap, with an interesting concept that toed the line of blasphemy: Adam and Eve attend marriage counseling. The jaded young couple bring their accusations of RIBaldry (HAR!) to the counselor, in this case Charon, as in the mythical ferryman of the River Styx (why not?). The play also contained the best use of Jesus as a comic-relief character I’ve ever seen (without going into militantly cynical or tasteless “blue” territory, either).

I had a great time, and at the very least the festival succeeded in renewing my interest in theater. With the latest 3D abomination and Netflix running rampant, it’s too easy to take for granted the dynamic power of that oldest of the arts, and the incredible effort that the players put in to tell their stories. I’ll be keeping my eye on upcoming shows from groups like the Actors Theater of Louisville, the Bunbury Theater, Looking for Lillith, and Pandora Productions. I’ll especially look forward to any new plays from local authors appearing at venues like the Bard’s Town, the Rudyard Kipling, and Kentucky Repertory Theater at Horse Cave.

Another Earth

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I saw ANOTHER EARTH last weekend, followed by a Q&A with co-star and Louisvillian William Mapother (LOST). The movie is definitely worthwhile as an engaging drama set against a very unique sci-fi backdrop. I’ll admit, what drew me in was the sci-fi aspect, the haunting images in the trailer of a duplicate planet Earth hovering over our own. I ain’t no fancy scientist, so I’ll save the immediate arguments of credibility dealing with catastrophic disruptions in the planet’s gravitational pull. The ghostly Earth 2 pops into frame every ten minutes or so, serving mostly as a macguffin for the growing relationship between John (Mapother) and Rhoda, played by Brit Marling, who I happened to see beforehand in a recent episode of COMMUNITY. The film’s look is impressive for its allegedly small budget, and to hear Mapother relate the filmmakers’ many challenges working within their constraints was inspiring. Brit Marling, who co-wrote with director Mike Cahill, gives a very subtle performance as the aspiring astrophysicist who struggles to pay penance for the ruin she caused by staring up at the newly appeared Earth (while driving buzzed/drunk, no less). While I agree with a good friend of mine who noted that we could have done without the opening scene entirely, I must say that when Rhoda (Marling) reacts to the scene of destruction by her hand, it seems powerfully real. All with a small quiver of the lip and stunned silence as she sinks into a numb horror (on the quiet of that scene, it’s like they didn’t want to wake the neighbors while filming, which may well have been the case). In a bad film, this same scene wouldn’t be complete without someone screaming and crying a lot, with much gesticulation.

Mapother’s character seemed a bit underplayed, but he manages to convey much in a single, menacing look. His mere presence in any scene kept me on edge and a little uneasy. Even when he eventually smiles or seems at ease, he always looks like he’s savy of some terrible thing about to occur. I’ll admit, much of this sense may be carried over from his character on LOST. “Creepy-guy” Ethan Rom is hard to shake. Mapother shows that same intensity especially in the climactic scene of the film.

During the Q&A, Mr. Mapother seemed like a great guy, very down-to-earth (no pun intended, stop with the groans). He made an effort to answer most of the audience’s questions in detail. I raised my hand impulsively a few times, thinking I might show off by asking if Hilary Putnam’s “Twin Earth” thought experiment in the philosophy of language played a role in the development of the story. Then I thought better of it, since the film only barely relates to the thought experiment. Plus, is that really something to show off? Why was I there?

There was something else I couldn’t shake about the film. I’m not sure if it’s in bad taste to bring up comparisons to other films at a Q&A, but as the story progressed, I was increasingly reminded of BLUE, by Krzysztof Kieslowski, the first in his superb “Three Colors” Trilogy of loosely connected passion-themed films. In BLUE, Juliette Binoche plays a haunted woman struggling to distance herself from the grief of surviving her child and husband (a world-famous composer) in a car crash. BLUE deals with depression and grief with such beauty and grace like very few films I’ve seen. Incidentally, BLUE is also the reason I now pour hot coffee over my icecream on occasion (you must try this). I think having seen BLUE made Another Earth appeal to me more, and I became convinced that Cahill, Marling et al. drew deeply from Kieslowski, so far to say that Mapother’s and Marling’s characters together seem to counterbalance Binoche’s in BLUE. I wanted to ask Mr. Mapother about this, but thought better of that as well.

My raised hand was overlooked, which is fine, since it gave me pause to rethink my impulsive questions. So, a good film, all-in-all, with another Kentuckian at the forefront.

Winter’s Bone hits close to home

I watched WINTER’S BONE again this weekend and verified why it affects me so. It reminds me of home. Minus the prevalence of a raging meth-war, but western Kentucky is no stranger to those evils, either. I cannot truly say the conflict in the film relates to my experiences growing up in Daviess County. I’ve never had to shoot and skin a squirrel for stew (probably the key scene that won Jennifer Lawrence her Hunger Games role), and I’ve never had a tweaked-out uncle grab me by the throat for any reason. In fact, all I can relate to with Ree (Lawrence) is chopping firewood and walking up lots of hills. Notice how many times Ree has to climb a hill to face destruction. Her thrashing at the hands of Thump’s women brings to mind a harrowing local incident from last year. Uncle Teardrop and Thump seem to occupy opposite sides of the “valley” where Ree lives. This image of corrupt people of influence living in high places, the easier to keep those below in fear, recalls the constant struggle of Eastern Kentucky residents against soulless coal companies. While Winter’s Bone takes place in the Ozarks of Missouri, the setting and events run parallel to many communities throughout the Bible Belt, namely Appalachia. Ree’s fight against her own extended family of meth lords speaks to any region where money-fed egocentrics maintain a system designed to keep the community working themselves into poverty, drugs and death.

But enough of that for now. Again, the conflict reminds me less of home, but the film reminds us that similar conflicts can be seen from anyone’s backyard. Speaking of backyards, I love the small details that pop up in the third watching of this film (a sign of any good film), like the half dozen or so broke-down lawnmowers and tractors abandoned in Thump’s overgrown compound. Why repair one when you can easily drop a wad of ill-gotten cash on the latest, top of the line model? That’s not to say the yards and fields around my hometown acquired their rusting occupants in the same manner. I still bet most of the barns, shacks, cars and farm equipment I’ve seen in our neighbors’ yards are there for a kind of sentiment. I can see where the owner could grow to actually like the sight of their old Impala slowly giving way to the weeds. The ride was fine for a time, and nature’s come to collect. This is another concept I find in the film: the impermanence of material objects against the lasting importance of family and home. There is one scene near the end that moved me, in which Ree’s younger brother and sister chase each other around a cluster of hay bales, jumping from bale to bale (my little sister and I did this all the time on our Papaw’s farm).

There’s also the obvious connection of Jennifer Lawrence hailing from Louisville, but that doesn’t concern me nearly as much as the story and how Debra Granik filmed it. Granted, Lawrence certainly deserved the Oscar nod, and I say she out-performed Natalie Portman by far. I think this is due to how Lawrence’s Ree reacts to the chaos around her with more courage than any teenager should be forced to show (meanwhile, the Black Swan just cracks under pressure and trips into madness, which anyone can do). The performances by Lawrence, John Hawkes and Dale Dickey all perfectly reflect their harsh environment, and each of them shows incredible restraint in how they come to their respective decisions to warily reach for a ray of hope through the cold miasma in the hills. Uncle Teardrop (Hawkes) looks to be perpetually crashing from a horrible high, making his eventual moment of clarity all the more profound. I’ve read some of Daniel Woodrell’s other work, and I hear Teardrop and the Dolly family show up in another of his novels. Here’s hoping that maybe Lawrence and Hawkes could one day reprise their roles. Until then, I’ll keep Winter’s Bone in my personal criterion. The Ozarks of Missouri are not too terribly far from the hills of western Kentucky, and I’ll watch the film again, maybe on the road or a trip overseas, when I need a taste of home.