An Open Letter to Carrie Fisher

 

Dear Carrie Fisher,

I’ve decided to write you this letter, after watching The Force Awakens, because I think the event of this film is significant. And I’ll be honest, my first comment after hearing you would be in a new Star Wars film was, “Dear lord, please just let her write her own lines.” When it became evident in the midst of the film that you would not, as I had hoped, be playing an older Leia with some intergalactic version of an ecigarette and a space martini who swore like a star sailor I’ll admit I was a teensy bit disappointed. I mean, I get why. They had to give Harrison Ford all the good lines since—spoiler alert—he might not have as many in the next film…leia13f-4-web

But I was also thinking, come on J.J. Abrams and co. (Who, no doubt, are now hearing every incidental complaint by every crazed, too-involved, get-a-life fan around the globe. And now I’m one of them. Well, you know, they asked for it. And this point aside, considering all the expectations, they made a really fun film.) Have they not read your books? Are they not aware of your public persona? I read the Entertainment Weekly article that said that Harrison Ford really is Han Solo. You’re not Princess Leia. You’re Carrie Fisher. But oh the opportunity to make General Leia a tough-talking, no-nonsense, kick *ss-and-make-snarky-comments-like “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” seems just so obvious.

I have to be up front with you. I’m one of those. I’m a Star Wars fan. When I was a teenager and my parents told my growing tomboy self I should be more of a “lady” I found few role models. Most were passive, girly, and wholly unlike who I wanted to be. Princess Leia was a “lady” (albeit in a male space fantasy) and if I could be more like Princess Leia and be a lady, I could be okay with that. As I grew up and grew out of the weird obsessed with Star Wars phase (admittedly, not totally, given I used to throw Star Wars parties for my nieces and nephews, which was a slim excuse to dress up in costumes and eat “wookie cookies”) I would tell my acting students that they should find their persona, and mine was a combination of Bonnie Hunt, Flannery O’Connor, and you. Not Leia, Carrie Fisher. You.

Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s the week I had. My preparation for seeing The wishful-drinkingForce Awakens was not to watch the original trilogy, but listen to you reading the audiobook version of your autobiography Wishful Drinking. To be candid, it’s been a hell of a week. Mostly personal stuff I won’t bore you with, like my fiancée getting bad health news, my surrogate adopted daughter having a terrible Christmas (again), and my workplace laying more people off after we all made concessions so they wouldn’t. There was also the showdown in my house that left cats we are watching fighting and ruining presents by peeing under the tree. That was fun. Or, well, you get the idea. I actually said to someone this week, “Well, at least bombs aren’t falling out of the sky.” It was that week.

I’ve got a lot going for me right now. Just published a book. Engaged. Surrounded by people I love who are special to me. But there is also this ***t. And as I’m listening to your book, I hear you talk about one interviewer asking you if you were happy and you responding, “Among other things.” That’s my mantra this week. Lots of good. Lots of not. Happy, yes, among other things.

See, this is the thing. I know General Leia is really motherly. I like this leiaabout her. And I’m assuming they will develop your character over the next films, especially with her son and semi?* daughter. But when I think about fighting the Dark Side. I think about fear and hate and anger and depression, and how you, Carrie Fisher, have fought them. As I listen to your book, I feel empowered. We are only as sick as our secrets. It’s a powerful thing you do, telling your story. Your full acceptance of who you are and your own humanity, that’s what makes you a role model. It’s how your celebrity becomes a gift. You use humor and your own experience to help other people find some perspective. Life has beaten you up. But you’re turning the bad stuff in your past into fuel for a better future.

I know everyone has their own wants for the reboot of Star Wars. And you Carrie_Fisher_2013looked beautiful on screen (side note, your gown in the final scene, how long will it take people to figure out that you are, well, not tall? The neckline was lovely but… That aside, I loved Leia’s new hair). But, well, I don’t know how much say you have. Should I forward this to J.J. Abram’s office? Maybe in a spinoff? I mean, you’re a writer. You have a gift with words. You were married to Paul Simon for heaven’s sake. You’ve doctored how many Hollywood scripts? Can they give you a pass on the next one? I just think, here’s this gifted writer, and she understands celebrity and how persona is a part of the characters you play. For better or worse, Leia is a part of you and you are her. She does not exist without you. Not really. So couldn’t they just give you some more free reign? Leia has had some really awful stuff happen. So have you. I think you, Carrie Fisher, have some important perspective on light and dark, and I think Leia should share that.

I’d end with something like, “This is our most desperate hour” but I think that might be a tad hyperbolic. You’re not our only hope. You’re not a new hope. But, you get hope. You understand the importance of a sense of humor. I trust J.J. Abrams knows that, and is planning on it for the future.

Sincerely,

A fan.

(An embarrassingly big one. I saw you do your one-woman show in Columbus, Ohio a few years ago. I didn’t scream “You’re awesome, Carrie!” or faint or anything like that. But I kinda wanted to.)
*I’m placing bets now she’s Kylo Ren’s twin sister, whose memory was erased by her Uncle Luke. See, I told you I was one of those nerds.

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Why This Christian Film Prof Hated God’s Not Dead

I didn’t want to. I thought I would just have a couple of issues with it I could point out to my film classes, like I do with Facing the Giants. You know, it needs some screenwriting and acting help, but hooray for a church making a movie and hooray for promoting revival.

Then I watched a trailer and got really skeptical. But a colleague said, “Some non-Christian neighbors of ours saw the movie and they’ve been asking us questions about our faith, so maybe it’s doing some good.” And I felt convicted, because who am I to stand in the way of anyone being reached by the Gospel?

So last night I watched God’s Not Dead and I didn’t like it. But I got convicted again and thought maybe I was too biased. After all, I’m a Christian academic and a Christian filmmaker. Maybe I’m a snob.GND-FB-Cover

Then I realized that this was one of the problems, and one main reason I can and will clearly state the following: I hated God’s Not Dead.

I don’t just dislike or have a couple of issues with the film. I’m pulling out what I consider a four-letter-word: Hate. I hated it. And here’s why:

  1. All of the non-Christian or non-converts in the film are villains.

All of them. All of the speaking characters are either professing Christians already, make a profession of “born again-ness” or remain not just antagonists, but villains. The most sympathetic non-Christian is the Muslim dad who throws his daughter (a Christian convert) out of the house and is in tears about it. At least he is portrayed as human enough to be broken up about what his non-Christian religious convictions cause him to do.

The most pointed example of this is the death of the professor character (Professor Radisson) played by Kevin Sorbo (you know, TV’s Hercules?). He’s not just an atheist academic, he’s a man with serious psychological problems and no professional boundaries. And he converts to Christianity after being hit by a car and right before his death.

There are two problems with this plot point. The first is that the “good” Christians get rid of an antagonist in a guilt-free way. This is the narrative equivalent of colonialist Christians baptizing native babies then bashing their heads against rocks. We don’t want you around. But we need to be okay with getting rid of you. So we’ll make sure you’re saved first, then have you die. The second is weak, weak, weak screenwriting. If the only real motivation for someone to convert to Christianity is his impending death, we’ve not preached the Gospel well (nor let the Holy Spirit do the good work of conviction well). This screenwriting device only serves to heighten emotional stakes, but like the rest of the film (except for the subplot of the Islamic family, which if developed and better directed would be a powerful story) it doesn’t earn the emotion, it just globs it on with slow dramatic zooms and heavy soundtracking, the same way Paula Dean globs on butter and oil on pasta.

  1. The film’s definition of Christian is cultural, and far too narrow.

The main plot revolves around a Christian in a philosophy classroom. Because that’s never happened before? Also, all the Christians in the film are the same brand of born again evangelicals, culturally stamped by the presence of Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty. I’m a Christian and that guy doesn’t represent my faith. Where was the Episcopalian in that classroom? The Catholic? The non-mainline Wesleyan (that’s me). The high church has by and large been better than mainline Christianity at engaging with both academia and art. But the presence of anyone who was Christian and already academically engaged would have negated the plot. Which means the plot was weak and the demographic depictions too one-sided.

  1. The polarizing vilification of academia.

The film polarizes Christianity. In this corner, smart people who teach at colleges but are verbally abusive. And in this corner, young people who are full of emotional conviction and earnestness.

You can learn a lot about a movie’s intended messages by studying the protagonist and antagonist of the story. God’s Not Dead’s protagonist is Josh Wheaton (Shane Harper) an earnest, bright, young white man (note: the hero is a young white male. Now read any of the writing going on about Ferguson, and the debate this country has been having for centuries about the white, male, and, sadly yes, Christian establishment). But stereotypical hero aside, he’s a nice guy. (Also note, the student wins the day, not the prof. Where are all the Christians who lambasted Harry Potter because “kids” defied all the authority figures? Once again, the prof/authority figure had to be vilified in order to justify his student defying him. What if he hadn’t been a mean, angry, emotionally manipulative man? What if he had just been a really good logician who was an atheist? Would it still be okay for the student to “outsmart” him or go against his authority?)

The antagonist is a white male too. He’s a philosophy prof who makes students sign an agreement on the first day of class that God is dead. When Josh doesn’t sign it, he’s suddenly assigned a lecture series and teaches the rest of the class (which doesn’t make sense at all; was there no other topic in the syllabus?). Professor Radisson can’t just be an atheist. He has to also demean and verbally abuse his Christian girlfriend. Oh, and all his colleagues, who come over for the dinner where he verbally abuses his girlfriend, apparently agree with him. Because everyone in academia thinks the same thing? Hang around some department offices or visit a committee meeting for ten seconds and you’ll realize that’s not the case. The academy actually encourages people to disagree and discuss why, since that’s how we learn.

And believe it or not, people can disagree and still love each other. I know mainline Christianity doesn’t want to hear that, but it’s actually true. Christians have had diverse opinions for years. And it didn’t stop them from loving each other or serving together. (Pretty sure the apostle Paul talked about this. Remember 1 Corinthians 12 and the parts of the body? Unity in diversity? Paul also talked about the problem of dissention, which is not the same as being different. I’ve always though if I were a part of the body of Christ I was probably the armpit. Actually, one would think artists and filmmakers should be the eyes. If that’s the case, it makes me think about specks and planks…)

Back to the prof as villain: Let’s concede there are some antagonistic profs. I’ve had some. I’ve even been the antagonistic prof. (I’m kind of doing it now, right?) And since the film takes the time to roll in the end credits a list of pending or closed cases where students wanted first amendment rights in order to profess their faith in the classroom, I’ll even grant that there are classrooms where that might happen. But the script smacks of coloring up the hard-nosed atheist academic to make him look like a “bad guy.”

No academic I know, or have had, as antagonistic or differently viewed from me as they may have been, would ask me to give up my faith in God. I can’t say it happens in all cases, but I would wager the vast majority of philosophy classrooms are about teaching logic, not teaching dogma.

I had a tough philosophy prof in college. I went to my great-grandmother’s funeral and missed the first class. I contacted her but she didn’t reply. Since I missed the first class I had to borrow and copy a syllabus from a classmate, and I failed the first paper since I didn’t have the assignment rubric. She made me question a lot of things. But when we were talking about evidence for the supernatural, she looked around the classroom and said, “How do you know God exists?” No one answered. “Come on,” she said, “You’re at a Catholic college! Where’s your St. Augustine? Where’s your Thomas Aquinas? Those are your boys.” And I was pretty humbled by that. I was a Christian, but I didn’t know my faith as well as I should have.

Philosophy classrooms, as I understand them, and liberal arts classrooms in general, are about critical inquiry. We’re not there to teach people what to think, but how to think better. What I learned in Intro to Philosophy was not whether or not God existed, but the rules of logic. Those rules brought me to a conclusion. And the conclusion I came to is much stronger than the film’s.

I don’t want there to be “proof” of God’s existence. It is impossible to prove God exists. But, it is also impossible to prove God does not exist. Therefore, my relationship with the Divine is predicated on, you guessed it, faith. The film tries to get there, but it mixes up a rhetorical debate with an emotionally charged story, which weakens any argument it was trying to make. Especially since this prof is a singularly bad prof and bad person. And where was his department chair, by the way? Why didn’t someone take this prof aside and say, “Your agenda is getting in the way of learning outcomes here. And you can’t personally threaten students.” This is the most unprofessional professor I’ve ever seen depicted on screen, and knowing how Hollywood treats academics (The Nutty Professor anyone?), that’s saying something.

The bad smart people idea is typified by the prof’s girlfriend Mina (Cory Oliver) visting subplotted pastor Reverend Dave (David A. R. White). She describes Professor Radisson’s belittling (and gender profiling, but never mind). “Let me guess,” the pastor says, ”He’s really smart.” Uh oh. Can’t be a Christian then, I guess.

American culture has become increasingly polarized, and Christianity has succumbed to it. I felt guilty for not liking this movie, even though it negates what I try to do every day, which is teach students that Christ is a perspective for learning (for reason, even), and that filmmaking is an art. I no longer feel guilty. Not one bit. Not liking this movie does not make me less Christian. God’s Not Dead is the movie I wanted to make when I was twenty years old, full of religious ardor and a need for dramatic emotional intensity. But I took a philosophy class, a real one. And I got a film degree, so I learned about how to tell better stories. While I admire Christians trying make films people want to watch, that often means they pander, preaching to the choir and riding on emotionally manipulative storytelling (and, apparently, former TV stars). The ends do not justify the means. Christ could use a message on a Coke bottle to further His kingdom if he so chose. It doesn’t give us an excuse to be poor storytellers. We serve an excellent God. We should be making excellent art, worthy of the gifts God has given us. Christians own the greatest story ever told, and this is what “we” come up with?

I know this movie was a valid Christian experience for a lot of people. And God bless that. But for a Christian film prof, it flew in the face of everything I’m trying to do: call people to not just conversion, but holiness. Help Christians engage in critical inquiry, speaking the truth in love. Make Christian art that is more that pop culture product, but expresses the power of redemption by using the power of the medium in sophisticated and engaging ways. Don’t just redeem the story; redeem the storytelling.

I’ve heard the movie Calvary is really well done. I’m looking forward to that.

 

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The Birds: The Christian Hipster’s Summer Guide to Hitchcock

The Hipster Hitchcock summer draws to a close with a fearful phone booth, blondes, and, you guessed it….The_Birds_original_poster

The Birds (1963). With Tippi Hedron, Robert Taylor, Jessica Tandy, and Suzanne Pleshette. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Things for Hipsters to Note:

-Tippi (Hedron) as Melanie.hitchcock-sizzle

She eats the screen alive wearing that green Edith Head suit. And she’s yet another blonde tortured by Hitch. This is the movie that made her famous. Incidentally, her daughter’s name is Melanie. You know, her daughter Melanie Griffith? Yep. Weird, right? (Incidentally, another minor character, a fisherman, is played by Doodles Weaver, father of Sigourney Weaver. So, the cast of Working Girl was hanging out on the set of The Birds. Oh Hollywood, such a quaint small town…)

-Tandy (Jessica).Jessica Tandy The Birds

She’s suspicious, judgmental, and completely delicious. Can you imagine her and Agnes Moorehead in a fistfight? (My money is on Tandy, in 8 rounds.)

-The Tides.bodega-bay-town-of-bodega-the-tides-wharf-restaurant-7d12412-wingsdomain-art-and-photography

A real restaurant in Bodega Bay, CA. When Hitch uses a real location, he gives it a creepy creepy backstory. So vacationing hipsters can take selfies there.

-Titles?birds

There’s no “The End” in the final shot. The opening tiles are “pecked away” by seagulls. Also, there is no music, just some electronically generated sounds to accompany the real bird sounds. All of this was intended by Hitch (reportedly B. Herrmann suggested no music; he’s credited as “sound consultant”) to be jarring, and leave the audience with no emotional context nor closure. Brilliant again, Hitch.

-The Screamimages

Robert Boyle, production designer, said Evard Munch’s famous painting The Scream was an icon for the whole film’s design.

Reasons for Hipsters to Like This Movie:

  •  Potential for pop culture jokes.images-1

It’s a movie about people being attacked by birds. And it’s one of Hitchcock’s most iconic films. Which is why it’s referenced in pop culture as much or more than Psycho. So hipsters can find:

 

 

The Birds inspired Barbie Doll.

the-birds-barbieOr create a The Birds Halloween outfit, like Darlene (Sara Gilbert) in a classic Roseanne episode.tumblr_ku6x3nGU1Q1qzpq8b

  • Hitch horror style + animal psychosis = crazy frightening.  It’s just bizarre enough to be fascinating.  And the shots. Oh my gosh the shots. Birds have never been so creepy. Especially when Melanie (Tippi Hedron) goes upstairs in the final scene. Hedron was apparently so traumatized by the week spent shooting the ultimate bird attack that she had to take a week off to recover both physically and emotionally.
  • Suzanne Pleshette as Annie Hayworth.birds4

She’s the only clued in person in clueless Bodega Bay. (Her mailbox is red, by the way. This probably means she’s a communist…or something.) Doubtless, she’s the kind, chain-smoking, sweater-wearing, moody, sarcastic, misfit hipsters would love. Eat your Bob Newhart out.

  • Incredible cinematography and special effects.It’s a good thing Hitch loved to painstakingly plan production and storyboard every single shot (he once reportedly said that shooting a film was boring, the exciting work was figuring it all out on paper). The Birds required meticulous planning, as it utilized a cumbersome sodium vapor matting process (the “blue screen” process popular at the time left a “blue fire” halo around silhouetted objects, and blurred the birds’ wings too badly). Ub Iwerks was hired from Disney to utilize the same effect that made Haley Mills twins in The Parent Trap.

imgres-1All the effects are seamless, even using optical printing wipes to move from location shot to studio shot it what looks like one seamless take (like when Melanie crosses the street and goes into the pet store at the beginning of the film. While she is behind the newsstand the shot wipes from exterior (the street) to studio (the storefront). Also of note is the iconicity of the shots: long vistas of the gorgeous California coast, the classic black crows multiplying on the playground, the gull crashing into the phone booth, countless striking shots of birds birds birds.

  • Postmodern storytelling.

The film has tons of self reference, but never explains much–like why Melanie follows Mitch (Robert Taylor) to Bodega Bay (Really? Just to deliver some birds?), why (Jessica Tandy) has such a controlling personality (Mother, much?), why Annie (Suzanne Pleshette) lives in the town anyway (since she seems so out of place there) or the biggest unanswered question of all: why do the birds attack? It seems to ask tons of questions, but come to few clear answers.

Lots of things are given significance–lovebirds, the color green, lots of female characters (lots of birds?) and only one male–but what they signify? Filmsite.org‘s review points out Freudian and natural symbolism:

“On an allegorical level, the birds in the film are the physical embodiment and exteriorization of unleashed, disturbing, shattering forces that threaten all of humanity (those threatened in the film include schoolchildren, a defenseless farmer, bystanders, a schoolteacher, etc.) when relationships have become insubstantial, unsupportive, or hurtful. In a broader, more universal sense, the stability of the home and natural world environment, symbolized by broken teacups at the domestic level, is in jeopardy and becoming disordered when people cannot ‘see’ the dangers gathering nearby, and cannot adequately protect themselves from violence behind transparent windows, telephone booths, eyeglasses, or facades.”

Or maybe too much of any animal is creepy, and Hitch just liked the idea…

 

Creepy Things That Hipsters Would Express With Emojis:
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The schoolhouse in Bodega Bay is really haunted. While it is now a residence, it was known in local lore that there was a creepy presence about the place. Which is why Hitch used it, of course.We-think-Tired-yawning-surprised

Daphne Du Maurier wrote the original short story “The Birds.” Hitch took the initial scenario, about birds terrorizing a cottage in Cornwall (UK), and threw out everything but bizarre attacking birds. Hitch also collected articles about real bird attacks. In May 2001, the son of Du Maurier reported that he and his wife were being terrorized by seagulls nesting outside their cottage in Cornwall…url

 

 

 

 

Things Hipsters Will Do After Watching This Movie:

  • Send someone they dislike a pair of lovebirds. But not deliver them in person.
  • Sing their favorite childhood songs in haunted schoolhouses. (I dare you!)
  • Wear green 60’s dresses and practice the blonde beehive swirl. Or for guys, wear Rob Taylor’s turtlenecks or scarf/sweater combos. When getting attacked by unexplainable and unnatural forces of nature, there’s no excuse not to look classy.
  • Freak out any and every time they see a seagull or a crow.sir_alfred_hitchcock_the_world_of_birds
  • Try to freak out people around them when they see a crow or seagull, saying things like, ”Why are they doing this? Why are they doing this? They said when you got here, the whole thing started. Who are you? What are you? Where did you come from? I think you’re the cause of all this. I think you’re evil! EVIL!”
  • Plan their children’s birthday parties for inside. With the windows nailed shut.
  • Avoid any phone booth that’s not a Tardis.

The Birdshbirds

images-2

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Rear Window: The Christian Hipster’s Summer Guide to Hitchcock

This week, Kaleigh Quinn (#1 Christian Hipster Hitchcock Fan) ghost writes about cameras, good placement of good dialog and the haunting psychological horror of remakes.

(Note: Kaleigh sent this to me on Hitch’s birthday… brilliant.)

Rear_Window_film_poster

Rear Window (1954) Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.  With Jimmy Stewart, Grace Kelly, Thelma Ritter, Wendell Corey and Raymond Burr.  Script by John Michael Hayes.  Based on a story by Cornell Woolrich.

Reasons Hipsters Will Like This Movie:

  • RearWindow1Jeff shoots with an Exakta camera and uses the camera to observe the world around him and solve a crime, which is pretty much the way hipsters observe the world anyway, albeit with less soy latte.   
  • Edith Head’s amazing costume design.  Forget Mrs. Thorwald, I’d kill for one of Lisa’s dresses.   
  • Unlike mainstream films, It is shot (almost) entirely inside Jeff’s apartment.
  • It equates Jeff with the audience, everything he sees is a projection of his internal desires and struggles. Just like the average moviegoer goes to the movies to escape from his or her life for a while, so does Jeff with watching his neighbors and only shows interest when they are having problems.

Things For Hipsters To Look For:

  • How the opening montage communicates where Jeff is at in his life right now, and who he is, without any dialogue.
  • 10601121_10154036535101515_1943983300_nHow Hitchcock relates Jeff and Lisa to Mr. and Mrs. Thorwald
    • It’s very important to listen to what Jeff says and what shots accompany them afterwards.  Mrs. Thorwald and Lisa even bare a resemblance.

Things for Hipsters to Beware Of:

  • Small dogs.
  • Neighbors.
  • When given the option, you should always fall in love and marry Grace Kelly
  • Jimmy Stewart spying on Miss Torso.  It’s weird and creepy to think of all American Jimmy Stewart in that way.
  • Remakes of this film…*shudders*

Things Hipsters Will Do After Watching This Movie:

  • Move into a Greenwich village apartment
  • Keep flashbulbs on them at all times

Quotes to sum up the movie:

Thelma Ritter by far has the best lines in the whole film.  Perhaps the one that really defines the movie though is this:

“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms.  People ought to get outside and look in at themselves.”

10602903_10154036535096515_228646338_nHitchcock Trivia:

  • The largest set at Paramount at the time, the courtyard was set 20 to 30 feet below stage level, and some of the buildings were the equivalent of five or six stories high
  • While shooting, Hitch worked only in Jeff’s “apartment.” The actors in other apartments wore flesh-colored earpieces so that he could radio his directions to them.
  • All the apartments in Thorwald’s building had electricity and running water, and could be lived in.
  • Hitch supposedly hired Raymond Burr to play Lars Thorwald because he could be easily made to look like his old producer David Selznick, who Hitch felt interfered too much.
  • Hitch makes his cameo in the songwriter’s apartment, winding his clock.
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Lifeboat: The Christian Hipster’s Summer Guide To Hitchcock

What’s a Christian Hipster supposed to do when faced with the master of suspense telling a story about 10 people stranded together at sea? Answer: Consider race relations, outrageous personalities, and potential sermon illustrations.

images-2

Lifeboat (1944). With Tallulah Bankhead and John Hodiak. Based on a story by John Steinbeck. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

Reasons For Hipsters To Like This Movie:

  1. Countless Sermon/Devos/Come-to-Jesus-talk Illustrations
The picture of different social strata, trying to make it through the war.

The picture of different social strata, trying to make it through the war.

 

 

A baseball team plus, with totally different socio-economic backgrounds, stuck in a confined space, hoping for rescue, trying to survive by getting along, and to survive the very idea of getting along? Man, that’s a metaphor just waiting for an application!

So let’s say you’re a Christian Hipster working as a summer camp counselor. “Hey,” you say to the kid hoarding the compass, “secrets aren’t cool. Let me tell you a story about this German guy who may or may not be a captain, and these other people who just got stranded on the boat that guy sank…”

Or let’s say your church is having a summer team-building event on a lake, and you’ve been put in charge of worship time around the campfire, and a short message about what it means to be the modern church. What better illustration than a boat full of people trying to survive in dangerous waters?

Or let’s say things get political in your small group, and it falls on you to bring everyone together. You now have the perfect metaphor to show how widely different personalities can all come together. Different classes? We can deal with it, throw the typewriter overboard. Physical hardships? See each other through. Race relation? Um, well, maybe this movie isn’t the best illustration there…

2. Delicious Personalities

Film historical Drew Casper called Tallulah Bankhead (who plays the socially elite journalist Connie Porter) and Hitch’s relationship, “outrageous personalities, kindred spirits.” Bankhead was star of stage, screen, and society column. Her persona is basically what Bette Davis played in half her films (Davis also played in the film versions of several stories Bankhead was in on Broadway, like her roles in The Little Foxes and Dark Victory.) Bankhead was a huge pop culture entity, and Hitch’s only choice for the leading role.

The other delicious personality associated with the film is John Steinbeck. Reportedly, Hitchcock requested the story. Steinbeck wrote it as a novella. His political views were different enough from Hitch’s that the script was treated by several other writers (including Alma and Ben Hecht) and the ending was totally rewritten. But the class divisions, and the earnestness of the situation, are very much of the great American writer’s ilk. It’s got a decidedly Steinbeckian feel.

3. So, how does one shoot a film that takes place entirely in a lifeboat?

That’s the kind of challenge Alfred Hitchcock eats for breakfast. Especially since he didn’t eat eggs. (Hitch trivia: he was scared of them. See more in Bee Wilson’s story for the London Telegraph).

Filming took place on sound stages, with several iterations of the boat for use in different lengths of shots. The crew also utilized rear projection, and the studio’s (the film was made at 20th Century Fox, as Hitch was still under contract) massive water tank. The shots in the tank have plenty of fog (dry ice and wind machines) to help blur the horizon.

Notice also how editing still builds suspense. Especially watch close ups, reaction shots, and camera angles. How do the characters regard each other? Who do or don’t they trust, and when? The truth is always revealed in close up, and even in a cramped space, when someone is isolated in the frame, they are “alone” with the audience. Close up of Willie as he rows, singing. Close up of Gus (William Bendix) (Willie’s POV) sleeping. Medium shot of Willie, doing something with the oar. Splash. The audience puts things together and thinks, “Wait, what happened?” Then audiences, if they are not already actively paying attention, are even more invested, trying to figure out what happened and what’s going to happen next.

Things For Hipsters To Note:
1. Best Ironic Line:

Mr Rittenhouse (Henry Hull): “Well, we’re all in the same boat!”

2. Initial Steinbeckian Social Commentary:

She talks with this guy...

She talks with this guy…

The relationship of Connie (Bankhead) to both Kovac (John Hodiak, the very Steinbecky working class everyman character) and Willie. As a journalist, she seems most interested in getting the good story (in the beginning of the film she is chastised by Kovac for filming everything instead of helping). She’s the only one who speaks German, and therefore becomes the translator for Willie (even though, as we later learn, he speaks English).

...but has the hots for this guy...

…but has the hots for this guy…

She’s also much more sympathetic to him than anyone else. But she and Kovac have one of those she’s-too-elite-for-him-but-he-brings-her-down-to-earth/he’s-not-in-her-intellectual-class-but-she-recognizes-his-street-smarts kinds of relationships that Hollywood just adores.

...but maybe she's really just interested in the story.

…but maybe she’s really just interested in the story.

 

In fact, all of the characters have their place in the social commentary line up, making the boat a microcosm that balances gender/white ethnicity/social class lines, if not all race lines. And it’s a good ensemble, with excellent performances and memorable characters all around.

3. Hitch’s Brilliant Cameo

Well, how does one put the hard-to-miss Hitch into this movie? Be advised, if you like finding the cameos yourself, I’m about to give away the best one Hitch ever had:

images-1

He’s an ad on the newspaper. Hitch had gone on a crash diet, so the pics are real, although the drug advertised is fictitious.

Problematic Things About This Movie Christian Hipsters Would Love To Comment On:

1. Tallulah Bankhead

Bankhead’s persona can be fascinating and hilarious. But to quote George Takei, oh myyyy. According to one famous story about the production, (and you know there had to be tons of them with both Hitch and Tallulah in close quarters. There are a boatload–not just a lifeboat, too–of crazy Tallulah stories. My favorite goes something like: Tallulah sits in a pew for a wedding. The alter boy goes down the aisle, swinging the incense censer. Tallulah says, “I love your dress, darling, but your purse is on fire.”) Tallulah was pretty adverse to wearing undergarments. She had to climb a tall ladder to get into the set–the boat, often in a tank, and would give the crew, well, quite a show. When Hitch was approached about it he said, “I don’t know if that’s a problem for costume, makeup, or hairdressing.”

Bankhead was outspoken, sure, and the ultimate girl about town. But she was also pretty self destructive. So the problematic element is not so much her outlandish behavior, but its unhealthy elements, like, you know, venerial disease and drug and alcohol abuse…

2. Race Relations

Marginalized.

Marginalized.

There’s one black guy on the boat. (Mmmm, a token black man is not a good sign.) His name is Joe (cliche) he’s put in charge of food rations (the cook–even more cliche) he’s the boat’s musician, carrying a pipe flute (now it’s a stereotype) and he’s a former pickpocket, apparently, because the other crew members know he’s capable and convince him to pick Willie’s pocket for the compass (now it’s a really painful stereotype).

Canada Lee (the actor who plays Joe) was best known for roles in this film and Cry, the Beloved Country, and many stage roles. Steinbeck hated this treatment in the final film, even though Lee was given the opportunity to improv all of his lines to make them less ridiculous (otherwise, would it have included a “yassuh”?).

Still marginalized.

Still marginalized.

Hitch’s films in general are not exactly progressive when it comes to race. And although Lifeboat deals with social groups in interesting ways, and with European descent ethnicities in a more even way, especially during the war, it’s a pretty awful portrayal of an African American man. Hitch, lovable genius that he was, was not to be emulated when it came to depictions of both women and historically excluded groups. All his protagonists, and to be fair, all his antagonists, are White Anglo-Saxon.

3. The Moral Quagmire of Dead Babies, Suicide, Euthenasia, and Murder

True, Germans were the enemy, and there was a war on, but should they shoot someone as ships are sinking? It’s the moral question that drives the film, and there’s no clear answer. That’s problematic in potentially a good way, as it forces us Christian-Hipster-postmodern types to think about these complicated things in complicated ways. The idea, too, of Mrs. Higgins (Heather Angel) clutching the dead baby she was trying to take home to her husband, and her suicide after the baby is gone remind us in that problematic way that the horrors of war are all to real. Not fun, but with a very decided pill of truth.

During WWII, with German Uboats terrorizing the Atlantic, the situation of this film was all too possible. A mid-war audience may not have wanted to see it, but may have also needed the recognition. At the time, Hollywood was selling a lot of heart-warming and affirming action/romances. But viewers were also trying to deal with the difficult truth of their lives. The most notable proof of this May be the 1946 Oscar being awarded to The Best Years Of Our Lives(a Billy Wilder film about soldiers learning how to be civilians) instead of It’s A Wonderful Life (Capra’s now-a-Christmas-standard that was too psychologically dark and plotwise “Capracorny”).

We killed the killer German guy! Oh shoot, we're just as bad as the killer German guy...

We killed the killer German guy! Oh shoot, we’re just as bad as the killer German guy…

The politics of the film, too, were problematic for contemporary audiences. Hitch was pretty outspoken in his support of the Allies (his mother was still in Britain), but the film doesn’t vilify the Germans. Although Willie is not the most helpful character (hiding the compass, throwing them off course, killing Gus), frankly, everybody on the boat has their faults. As critic Dan Callahan said in a review for Slant“Rittenhouse professes that he’s broken up about becoming part of a lynch mob, but he should be more broken up about the traits he shares with Willy. No one gets off here; everyone is guilty. Finally, Joe looks up to God for guidance, and Hitchcock, sensibly enough, is all for this. If you look at the world as deeply as Hitchcock does, religion really is your only answer. Like so many of his movies, Lifeboat is a deeply Catholic work.”

Everybody is guilty. Now take that to your devos session and use it well.

 

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North by Northwest: The Christian Hipster’s Summer Guide to Hitchcock

It’s Hitch’s only MGM film, his quintessential cold-war thriller, and the guy who might be the greatest film star of all time in his most critically applauded suit, being gunned down by a biplane in the one of the most famous action sequences of all time. Set your compass for*:

North By Northwest Hitchcock lobby card1

North by Northwest (1959). With Cary Grant and Eva Marie Saint. Screenplay by Ernest Lehman. Directed by Alfred Hitchcock.

*this compass heading doesn’t actually exist. The points from West to North run: West, West by North, West-Northwest, Northwest by West, Northwest, Northwest by North, North-Northwest, North by West, North. There is a “North-Northwest,” but not a “North by Northwest.

Reasons for Hipsters to Like This Movie:

  • Cary Grant’s SuitNorth-By-Northwest-1

Really, it should have it’s own Facebook page. Mansel Fletcher of the London Telegraph called it “one of the most celebrated male costumes in cinematic history.” It is one of the reasons NxNW is often called “the first James Bond film.” Even more interesting than the suave Grant’s well groomed couture is how much Hitch toys with it. Grant, in the suit, is subjected to a lot, including the whole crop-dusting thing. It’s as if Hitch is toying with Grant’s very persona, getting the suit dirty and putting the ever aplomb leading man in precarious, often comically embarrassing (see the drunk scene, for one, and the art auction for another) situations.

  • Its Mad Men-esqueness

    Another day on Madison Ave.

    Another day on Madison Ave.

The style goes beyond Grant’s suit. From the drinks at 21, the ride on the 20th Century Limited, and the mansion on Long Island to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired house above Mount Rushmore, the mid-century mod lifestyle is so on display that critic Nick Clooney called the film, “Certainly Hitch’s most stylish thriller, if not his best.”

  • Actor’s Studio performers

    Side note: she's wearing red.

    Side note: she’s wearing red.

Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau were both alumni from the famous New York acting Mecca. In fact, there’s an in joke in the movie about it (VanDamm asks Thornhill if he works at the Studio). Both Landau and Saint give wonderful performances. Landau’s was criticized by the MPAA for being to effeminate, and it may be that, but it’s also startling and cold. Saint is one of few Hitchcock leading blondes who can hold her own with the bad guys, nicely turning femme fatale into spy/counterspy/counterloveinterest.

  • Bernard Herrmann, Saul Bass, and Ernest Lehmanalfred_hitchcock_north_by_northwest_poster_shop_new

All added significantly to the style. Just watch the incredible opening titles designed by Bass and scored by Herrmann. And see if you don’t walk away from the movie humming the themes. Lehman was suggested by Herrmann, and his work combined themes from other Hitch films (the man-on-the-run from The 39 Steps and the political intrigue of Saboteur) with Cold War politics and wrote in Hitch’s pet idea for the film: a man alone in a desolate place, flat, surrounded by nothing. Suddenly, a plane appears on the horizon. Lehman won an Oscar for his efforts.

Things for Hipsters to Look For:

  • Playing with Persona
    Suave...

    Suave…

    ...to silly.

    …to silly.

    Clean (but silly)

    Clean (but silly)

    ..to dirty (but serious).

    ..to dirty (but serious).

Watch how often Cary Grant ends up in a compromised position. Watch how often he’s on the left side of the screen (making him less “in control” since American audiences read left to right and the right side of the screen is therefore a more “comfortable”–read confident and in control–position). Watch how he goes from debonaire, the “glamorous, worldly figure that Cary Grant had come to mean,” (as Pauline Kael put it) to the Cary Grant of his early screwball comedies. Hitch toyed with audience expectations, and also with audience memory.

Grant had, at this point, already been in three films with Hitch:  Suspicion (1941), Notorious (1947), and To Catch a Thief (1955), and Hitch had played with type before (he really had with Jimmy Stewart, too). But near the end of Grant’s career the viable pictures were the ones in which “He was cast as Cary Grant” (Kael again). Hitch did just that (cast him as his persona), then made him drive drunk, get shut in a train berth, don a redcap uniform, roll in the Indiana dirt, cause such a scene in an art auction that he gets escorted out, and appear in the hospital without pants. It’s Grant’s comedy career and his romantic career with added intrigue and action to boot.

  • Confounded by Geography

    How belittleing.

    How belittleing.

The plot moves the characters roughly North and West: From 5th Ave. to the UN to Long Island is North. To Chicago is West. From Chicago to South Dakota is West and North. People generally move right to left on the screen (that would be west on a map).

How isolating.

How isolating.

Grant’s character is constantly battling geography. He nearly goes off a cliff when the baddies force him to drive after pouring a bottle of bourbon down him. As he runs out of the UN, an overhead shot makes him tiny in the frame. During the cropduster sequence he’s lost in the corn and appears several times below the horizon, then he nearly falls off of Mount Rushmore.

How separating.

How separating.

Also note, when Thornhill (that’s Grant) and Kendall (Eva Marie Saint) are in the woods, realizing who each other are, there are trees between them (more geography to cross) and they stand at opposite ends of the long VistaVision frame. As they talk, they get closer and closer until geography is defeated and they are together.

There’s probably some inherent American symbolism with needing to defeat geography in order to reclaim identity, but since both Hitch and Lehman eschewed “symbolic” readings of the film, we won’t dwell on that.

  • Cold War Politics

Lack of symbolism (HA!) aside, the film’s plot is decidedly couched in Cold War suspicion. Is Thorhill really Kaplan? Who is Kaplan? What government agency does he work for? How does Thornhill get caught up in a case of domestic espionage? In a film that deals with Communist spies, red is definitely going to mean something.

An undercurrent of espionage.

An undercurrent of espionage.

  • Outward Conflict, Not Inner Turmoil

While most of Hitch’s films have more to do with psychosis than espionage, NxNW is not a psychological thriller. It deals with much more concrete problems. Although, there is Thornhill’s relationship to his mother, and the whole mistaken-identity-turns-into-taking-on-the-identity thing, which could confuse even Norman Bates.

  • The Micro-MacGuffin

In this story, it’s a piece of microfilm that VanDamm (played deliciously by James Mason) wants to get out of the country, and only Kaplan nee Thornhill can get back, with Eve Kendall’s help. But for the audience, the microfilm does not keep us in suspense. Who cares what happens to the government secrets! What the audience is dying to know is whether Thornhill will get Kendall away from VanDamm and whether or not they’ll fall off George Washington’s face! The microfilm only serves the purpose of advancing the plot. The very definition of MacGuffin.

Notes That Will Give Hipsters Extra Hitch Street Cred:

  • Breaking Down the Cropduster SequenceScreen Shot 2014-07-21 at 11.31.47 AM

It’s one of the most talked about movie sequences, and everyone has their own commentary.  What is most notable, perhaps, is how short the “action” part of it really is. And that there are just a few short lines of dialog. For more endless discussion on “He’s dustin’ where there ain’t no crops,” Hitch fans should bookmark the Alfred Hitchcock Wiki, and check out both the quotes and the gallery. Film nerds will also have fun looking at the storyboards.

  • Uses of Sound and Silence

Like the above mentioned scene, several sequences in the film make fascinating use of sound and silence. The viewer forgets there is no talking going on, or forgets when the music started or ended. This would never work on Television, where the moment people stop talking we either look up to see what went wrong or just change the channel.

  • The Man in Lincoln’s Nose

It was one of the working titles for the film, and one draft of the script included a scene where Grant’s Thornhill has a sneezing fit while trapped inside the 14th President’s gargantuan granite schnoz. No doubt Hitch found that hilarious. Conscientious Hipsters will try to find some Cold War era commentary here, too, but it’s not as easy as looking for thematic use of red (look at the poster art, watch people’s clothes, cars, and accessories) or the Freudian imagery (no symbolism? Hitch, please, you end the film with a train going into a tunnel as the male and female lead…well nevermind, but we all know that was on purpose… and the modest Christian Hipster suddenly gets rather uncomfortable…).

"Next time, honey, let's to to Yellowstone."

“Next time, honey, let’s to to Yellowstone.”

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But, Why DO Christian Hipsters love Hitchcock?

Sure, his movies are fun and scary and all that, but Hitch’s appeal is pretty genuine. A quick search for “Hitchcock” on Etsy, the original hipster homemade haymarket, returns hits like a pair of Psycho themed graphic print flats and host of word art/poster art prints including a headshot of Hitch with sunglasses and a Union Jack bowtie printed on a vintage dictionary page. Hipsters love Hitch, and there are some compelling reasons why.

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1.Bikes. tumblr_m2dvhz5ZmK1qcmo9qo1_400

Like the bicycle, the transportation of many urban-chic hipsters intent on being healthy and going green, Hitch knew he had audience appeal. He was not only good at creating suspense, he knew audiences loved the thrill. Hitch worked the crowd, posing for promotional photos like the one above, and letting his persona help sell his product. He made cameo appearances in all of his films, and his TV show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents became such a cultural staple that the opening (where he walks into an outline of his silhouette) and the music (Charles Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette) are still recognizable. Hitch created a cult following. My metaphor here is pretty weak, but bicycles are a popular, recognized item, and so is Hitch. He made himself an icon. So Hitch understood pop cult appeal…

2. Birds.Hitchcock_606b39_1863644

…But Hitch was anti-mainstream. His movies were popular product, but they were anything but Hollywood cliche. The happily-ever-ending of the big budget studio movie was nowhere near Hitch’s thrillers and chillers. Hitch toyed with audiences. His intention was to show how “mainstream” thought, especially post WWII American thought, covered up a lot of things no one wanted to acknowledge. Pyscho is a great example. Our heroine, Marion Crane, is sleeping with her boyfriend and steals cash from the boss. The other main character is a guy who killed his mother, preserved the body, and takes on her persona in order to kill others. Not exactly Andy Hardy or Ward and June Cleaver.  

3. Irony and Wit. i.chzbgr

Hitch was one clever psycho, and Hipsters love clever. His films are full of winks and jokes. The very idea of Cary Grant’s unflappable 1960s persona being run down by a crop duster and drunked up by thugs is intended to be funny. From his cameos to visual jokes to ironic situations, Hitch used humor to make sinister subjects approachable. The characters may be crazy, but the movie had to be fun. They were fun, mostly because Hitch could handle heavy subjects with irony and detached observations.

4. Vintage Appealurl

Hitch’s style included visual and musical elements that are the kind of vintage throwback Hipsters eat for brunch. There’s all that Edith Head-ness in the later films, 1960s couture at its most delicious. But all of his films had strong quality in production design. Iconic designer Saul Bass is responsible for the opening sequences and posters for Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest (Bass is also the guy responsible for the posters and titles for West Side Story and The Man With the Golden Arm, and his influence is homaged in the designs for Catch Me If You Can and Mad Men). And there’s Bernard Herrmann, whose musical scores make several of the most notable Hitch films into near-operas.

5. Hitch fought the ManFunniest_Memes_alfred-hitchcock-serving-tea-to_18329

Until Andrew Sarris started writing about him as an auteur, Hitch was largely dismissed by the critics. Hollywood knew he was popular, but he was never married to one studio, working independently with David O. Selznick, as well as for studios like MGM and Universal. Hitch was a part of the system, but he never really fit it, or its expectations. Sarris called out Hitch’s great use of form, which helped bring around critical response to a filmmaker who had up to that point be largely ignored. In a review of Psycho, which was also Sarris’s first appearance in The Village Voice, he gave Hitch an “all out rave:”

“A close inspection of “PSYCHO” indicates not only that the French have been right all along, but that Hitchcock is the most-daring avant-garde film-maker in America today. 
Besides making previous horror films look like variations of “Pollyanna,” “Psycho” is overlaid with a richly symbolic commentary on the modern world as a public swamp in which human feelings and passions are flushed down the drain. ”  

6. Hitch appeals to the postmodernimage

His characters as complicated. We often are made sympathetic to criminals and psychopaths (like Jimmy Stewart in Vertigo). People struggle with moral choices (like Farley Granger in Strangers on a Train). No one is wholly innocent, yet the culpable are often made sympathetic, or at least understood as complex (like Lawrence Olivier in Rebecca, Anthony Perkins in Psycho, or Joseph Cotten in Shadow of a Doubt).  This complexity prefigures an understanding of the world that is more comfortable holding what seem on the surface as competing ideas in tension. Postmoderns question, analyze, and see truth as, well, at least multi-faceted. Hitchcock’s truth was always multifaceted, and often defied total recognition or discernment. We’re not sure who is good or bad in a Hitchcock movie. But we know things are always more than they seem.

7. Hitch appeals to the intellectual, the pseudo-intellectual, and the wannabe intellectual.url-1

Hitch’s films are downright smart. While many can appreciate, it takes attention and intention to understand them. Many of the stories were based off of novels and plays. Hitch took good source material and added to it the sophistication of remarkably good shooting and editing. Hitch’s meticulous storyboarding is well documented. And his influence on the world of editing (with a shout out to Alma, who was half the editing genius) is downright palpable. Hitch made smart movies, and he made them intelligently. Hipsters are unrelentingly academic. Or at least, they want to appear so. (Note Ira Glass’s introduction This American Life episode 293 “A Little Bit of Knowledge,” in which he cites a story of people talking about architecture who only know enough about the subject to hold a conversation with each other, not with an architect, and say “You know what? We sound like we’re in a magazine, a magazine called Modern Jackass.”)

But isn’t this series about Christian Hipsters?

For all the above reasons and more, Christians who fall into the Hipster category, or Hipsters who fall into the Christian category (a postmodern shift many Christian Hipsters embrace because of its irony and epistemological shift), already love Hitch.

So there’s another twist to the plot:

Christian Hipsters love commentary on mainstream society, because they’re changing the way we understand Christianity.

And Hitch loved to expose how society, the small town, the home, and the everyday person were always more than what they appeared on the surface.

Hitch’s films intentionally point out that everyone “goes a little mad sometimes.” This has HUGE Christian Hipster appeal. All people are in need of grace. Categorical rejection of certain demographics because they do not meet social expectation is no guarantee of purity when it comes to action or intention. There is a dark side to humanity (you know, like people intent on trying to kill women in showers, the wives of people they meet on trains, ambassadors, widows, women in bell towers, next door neighbors, and the list goes on). There are pernicious forces in nature (birds.) Life on Earth is a dangerous business, and should not pretend to be otherwise. Hitch brought that to the front of our consciousness and made us deal with it. We have to deal with disturbed people and disturbing circumstances. We will never be free from them in this life. Not even in cute little towns or normal, everyday life. Our world needs redemption. Showing this need is what many important Christian artists and writers have tried to do. Flannery O’Connor said,

“The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him. His job will be to make these appear as distortions to a world that’s used to seeing them as natural. To accomplish this, the writer may be forced to take even more violent means to get his message across. To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large, startling figures.”

If anything, Hitch drew large, starting figures (and was one, himself). His work undoubtedly, even if it wasn’t his primary goal, intends to point out “distortions” in modern life. In this sense, Hitch’s voice qualifies as something more than just clever, fun, and exciting.

He qualifies as prophetic.

So wear your Hitch swag with pride, and own the ironic messed-up-ness. For Christians intent on engaging in popular culture and shunning the mainstream in favor of vintage goods, mustaches, and coffee, Hitch just might be a director of choice.

thumb_alfred-hitchcock-meme-generator-that-great-sermon-this-morning-do-it-again-i-say-1efa76

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