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“They were like butterflies, it was like they never slept,” said Mr. Vounta, recalling the bombs that the U.S. dropped on Laos from 1964 to 1973. Mr. Vounta is one of the voices featured in This Little Land of Mines, a film by Erin McGoffa 2017 Student Fellow from American University. The film premiered at the Landmark Bethesda Row Theater on ThursdayJuly 18, 2019, to an audience of nearly 200 that filled the theater.

Read more here.

erin-world-premiereErin McGoff at the Q@A for ‘This Little Land of Mines’ World Premiere on July 18th, 2019.

I just finished the audio book by Walter Isaacson about the life of Leonardo da Vinci. I would highly recommend it to all as it conveys a sense of not only the man, but also what a life devoted to creativity can be.

And what is that? Interestingly, it is the liberal spirit of experimentation and willingness to fail, or half complete works, that was the hallmark of Leonardo. For example, he only completed four portraits of women – one of which is considered by many to be the best Renaissance painting and emblematic of the time – the Mona Lisa. Many of his projects, and paintings, were left unfinished.

Another interesting and inspiring aspect of Leonardo was his willingness to invent technique and his success at doing so. Among those techniques was Sfumato – the sfumato-001technique of intentionally blurring lines and color to create an overall sense of realism. How? Because in life there are no ‘lines’, there is only the interplay between light and dark. The two often blend harmoniously.

Leonardo never wrote an overarching treatise – there is no opus book or books that depict his philosophy or conveys his style. Rather, he kept thousands of pages of notes, all that were apparently designed to inform himself and remind himself of certain aspects of whatever craft or art he was trying to master, including the craft of designing buildings and machines of all sorts, some of them machines of war.

He was, then, a blend of artist and scientist, and investigator into the known and unknown, who chronicled what he observed for sometimes mundane, sometimes profound reasons.

A bit more about sfumato. For me, sfumato not only revealed a style, but a perspective on life. In sum, life is not absolute light and dark, good and evil. It is, rather, the sfumato-002constant shades between. So sfumato as a technique is inherently humanizing. It emphasizes that nothing is perfect: there are no straight lines, there is no definitive light and dark, and there certainly is no perfected human form. By inference, there is no perfect human being.

What the technique of sfumato allows to happen is for the innate human inner light to shine through: a light that points to another kind of perfection. That is, that the light is imperceptible in a sense, and yet, perceived on some level as the human spirit. Often, but not always, that spirit is compassionate. Other times it is cruel. At yet other times, mysterious. The genius of Leonardo was his ability to convey that spirit and light in all its forms.

This does not at all mean we should stop attempting to be better human beings or to shape our own moral code.  Rather, it prompts us to have a broader, hopefully wiser perspective.  In other words,  the passion for truth and beauty does lead, it seems to me, to an understanding that no one has an absolute claim on it.  It is, rather, a sfumato. It is a blurring. It is in this blurring that we can find our common humanity and can abide peacefully in the light that pervades all of experience. This ‘great light’ is not so much a ‘spiritual’ light only for the religious – for a artist like da Vinci perceived it without necessarily always being overtly religious. It is the light of sfumato.sfumato-003

You can find a link to the amazon page for Walter Isaacson’s biography of Leonardo here.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Seeing director Sean Baker’s The Florida Project reminded me quite unabashedly that there is more than one way to tackle the art and craft of filmmaking. In the United States, because filmmaking is so rooted to this day in story telling techniques that can be traced back to the so-called ‘Hollywood style’, The Florida Project will certainly make FP-002some people squirm in their seats because they are not delivered the well-defined story memes heaped up from Hollywood directors like so many pre-packaged and colorful Gummy Bears the viewer might be inclined to purchase prior to entering the theater.

As far as mainstream movies are concerned, Hollywood is generally more worried about box office than art.  In seeming rebellion, The Florida Project reminds me of an alternative universe of storytellers that countered the Hollywood style in the 50’s and 60’s, including but not limited to European directors such as Francois Truffaut, Michelangelo Antonioni, Vittoria De Sica, and others. And in that mix we must also include Asian directors such as Ozu.

These similarities take their shape in terms of both the way the film is shot and edited, as well as its content. The Florida Project was shot and edited in a distinctly non-American style, and its content focuses on the shadow world of poverty that many Americans would prefer to ignore.

In terms of how the film is shot, I was immediately struck by the emphasis on what can only be termed mise-en-scene – literally, the use of the frame and the compositional elements displayed to make a statement, usually using a static, wide shot. The constant wide shots of the film’s child characters marching past Floridian architectural oddities shows the indelible influence of environment and context on the children. It forces us into the moment, rather than moving us kinetically into the next scene via relentless editing.

Mise-en-scene, as such, is a political statement. It tells the viewer that the director wants you to linger on the scene and reflect on it, rather than move on to the next item in the shot list and not think about what you’re seeing too much. A master at this technique was the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu.

Ozu’s Cinematography (from the review of Early Spring)

Ozu’s mise-en-scene was famously different from most other filmmakers across the globe, although his style has directly influenced some filmmakers, such as Hou Hsiao-Hsien.  His camera is almost invariably set at a low angle, as if from a low sitting position and looking up at the characters.  The image compositions are static, and there is almost no camera movement.  Even when the camera tracks horizontally, it maintains a fixed composition on the principal characters of the shot.  Thus the camera seems to be rooted to the environment, and pays little attention to the eye-line axes of the characters.

It is precisely this effect of ‘rooted in the environment’ that Sean Baker explores with The Florida Project. The use of mise-en-scene, combined with the fact that the film is virtually without music, certainly displays one of the most rebellious directorial styles seen in the United States recently, certainly since Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life – a film that also showed a lot of European influence, including most predominantly the emphasis on architecture (also found in The Florida Project) so prevalent in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. You can read my review of The Tree of Life here.

That said, Mr. Baker is not quite as serious in intent as Malick, and does seem to want to make audiences happy, and does so with a technique often employed by Francois Truffaut (for example in The 400 Blows) and Vittorio De Sica (in Bicycle Thief) – that is, the prevalence of cute. And even beyond cute, The Florida Project displays a Christ-like innocence that evokes pity.

Cuteness, innocence and pity are the elixir that binds the viewer to the screen with The Florida Project where they might otherwise turn away. A similar tactic was used in the film Little Miss Sunshine, but that film had a much more conventional shooting style than The Florida Project, and was also more cynical in its conclusions about human nature. The primary purveyor of this innocence is The Florida Project is the central child character, Moonee, as played by Brooklynn Prince. Moonee, if taken as a symbol, is the lunar child, the mysterious nature that pervades The Florida Project and would certainly overwhelm the machinations of suburban bliss laid out by mankind should we ever die off of from a plague or other calamity. Moonee’s mother, played with effervescent verve by newcomer Bria Vinaite, is also fundamentally innocent – a passionate activist for her child’s wellbeing – as much a product of an unfair system as anything to do with her own failings.

It is no accident, therefore, that the children want to burn down the house in the cookie cutter suburb that has turned into a dilapidated wasteland. Moonee and her friends, in burning down the house, show that they are in alignment with nature, not with the supposed security of the corporate human as displayed by the ‘normal’ people who swamp into Disney World – a manufactured realm of make-believe that the children of the welfare hotels cannot afford and must therefore turn constantly to their own imaginations to replace. And yet, their ‘crime’ is imbued with innocence – no one is hurt, and perhaps if all the abandoned homes were burned down, nature could more effectively reclaim its rightful status.

The father figure of the film is the ever-present motel manager, played by Willem Dafoe. Dafoe’s character introduces us to the implications of human choice that Mr. Baker FB-003wishes us to contemplate. While the environment and context in The Florida Project may be quite cold, and the omniscient helicopter ‘observer’ of the entire human enterprise that drones endlessly in the background quite detached and empty, human choice is nonetheless a key factor in introducing compassion into the equation. The manager, then, is closer to God than is the environment and nature, which again is shown to be irrevocably detached. God – should he or she be presumed to exist – emerges from nature as a human construct.  The film compels us to conclude that human beings can create good where it otherwise might not exist.

At the end of the film, Moonee’s friend takes her on an excursion back to American normalcy, which to the poor children of the welfare hotel is the fantasy of Disney World and Cinderella’s Castle – the proverbial destination for all young American girls. The fact that the girls never really reach the Castle is, it seems to me, intended – for it is the idea of the Castle, not so much the Castle itself,  that eggs the girls on to their destination. It is the promise of the thing – not the thing itself – that motivates human beings. Seen in a larger context, it is the promise of hope and freedom that elevates people — that no matter how illogical and silly it may seem to cynics, hope is nonetheless a powerful motivator for the supposedly naïve people of the world who still need to believe in something.

For without hope, human beings cannot be said to be fully human. The Florida Project shows us how this truth still resides with us as much as it did a half century ago, or indeed a millennium ago, or even perhaps when human beings first looked out from FB-001over a hilltop, and saw the Promised Land beyond.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

What’s interesting in writing about films that attempt to move the medium forward is that such films tend to impact the mind of the critic a little bit more than others. They begin a thought process where one idea inevitably leads to another in an interesting, intuitive but generally causal way. Such it is with The Shape of Water, written by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor and directed by Mr. del Toro.

I admittedly lack an in-depth knowledge of del Toro’s previous work – most of which I haven’t seen – but this film provides a successful example of combining the feminine and masculine voice in storytelling, something that the collaborative nature of film allows to happen. The film also taps into some intriguing philosophical territory, even while conveying an essentially melodramatic love story involving a mute young SOW-005woman (played by Sally Hawkins) and a primordial and monstrous amphibious creature (played by Doug Jones) reminiscent of the 1954 horror film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. Another, more recent, corollary being the film version of The Beauty and the Beast.

Vanessa Taylor, who scripted the sci-fi film Divergent, honed her skills primarily as a television writer. The advantage of television writing is that it tends to force the writer to focus on character interaction and subtleties (when it’s good), and because of constraints of budget and time often tends to shy away from a dependence on special effects. It is the strength of the character’s interactions – coupled with a compelling story told in a unique way – that makes The Shape of Water so easy to watch.

The Shape of Water, sometimes billed as a fantasy/drama, also brings together a mélange of philosophical ideas in a very impressive way – ideas that may often be the brainchild of Mr. del Toro. While the film’s execution budget and scope are relatively modest in Hollywood terms ($19 million), the intellectual scope of the film extends quite further. Now, whether or not all of this philosophical ‘profundity’ is a result of my own personal meanderings over the past few years, or the intended result of the filmmakers, we’ll never know (unless I happen to meet them). Nevertheless, some readers might find the following reflections of value.

While many film professionals have, for a variety of reasons, recently flocked to television Read the rest of this entry »

Kenneth Lonergan is not the most prolific of directors, but when he makes a film it tends to have an impact. So it was with his 2000 classic, You Can Count On Me (reviewed by me here) as well as his recent dramatic effort, Manchester By The Sea.

On one level, Manchester is a story about time. Time overlaps, fuses, and conjoins in interesting ways, due to the non-linear way that Lonergan chose to tell his story. Not only does time overlap, but dialog does as well (overlapping dialog apparently being a favorite technique of Lonergan’s). The weaving of non-linear time and very focused, human, simple and in-the-moment scenes, along with overlaying classical music onto the scenes and transitions (extending Lesley Barber’s original score), gives the film a feeling of both the natural chaos of life and, ironically, of refinement. It is the tension between the two – the sublime and the tragically simple and human – that becomes the almost Zen-like framework through which Lonergan tells his story. This particular film probably could have been edited a dozen different ways, even though the outcome could have been essentially the same.  As Lonergan said in an interview, the only way he could perceive the story being told was ‘all at once’.

This was absolutely by design; Manchester likely evolved into a final film in the editing room in a very real way, with substantial shifts and changes occurring at that stage. manchester-coreyLonergan may have even shot the different aspects of the story without being 100 percent sure of how he would ultimately weave them together. He apparently went through several drafts in writing the script, throwing out many scenes, rewriting others, then starting the process again. The result can be at times confusing, but ultimately satisfying as Lonergan and team meld together various threads of a the tragic tale of handyman Lee Chandler (brilliantly played by Casey Affleck) as a pivotal error in his life caused him to lose literally everything, most importantly his two children. The film explores the consequences of that event.

While the story Mr. Lonergan tells is non-linear, the themes are timeless, as is the sea that surrounds the small fishing community where the events take place. The fundamental theme behind the story is one of redemption: how does one redeem oneself after a tragic mistake? Moreover, the film, it seems to me, focuses on the idea of how a person – a man – redeems himself in such a situation through what are essentially very simple actions.

Why would the story necessarily be different for a man than a woman?  I will argue that this story is primarily about the responsibilities that men will often assume, mainly, fixing things in the way that the handyman Lee does. Moreover, the story evokes the necessity an ambiguity of accepting responsibility even where there is no clear ‘blame’ to be had. In the case of Lee, whose error was a simple and yet profound mistake, the question becomes one of context. The context of the mistake is that the character lives in a community that both created the framework of ‘stupid men doing stupid things’ to occur, and then makes it impossible for Lee to rejoin the community and accept their forgiveness – perhaps because there was a collective guilt associated with the deaths of Lee’s children because the tragedy took place as a direct result of a ‘boy’s night of fun’ that took place at Lee’s house, in the basement, where the children slept. His daughter’s deaths were, therefore, a communal responsibility.

That said, there is no real indication that, for the most part, the punishment for Lee’s error came from anywhere else than inside his own head. His wife Randi (played poignantly by Michelle Williams) did ultimately leave him, remarry and have another child. While Lee had a similar manchesterbythesea_traileropportunity for another relationship, he didn’t take it. His choice was not to forgive himself and not really to move on, at least not until the end, where he allows another human being into his life – his nephew who experiences his own personal tragedy.

Within the context of a fairly tolerant society (Lee was not accused of manslaughter) Lee slowly finds redemption through the de facto adoption of his brother’s son Patrick (played effectively by Lucas Hedges) after Patrick’s father’s death (Lee’s brother Joe, played stoically by Kyle Chandler) – even though here Lee is also unable to take on full responsibility for that task and does so in a very cautious, meandering way.

In a world defined by competence, Lee’s error was one of fundamental lapse in his generally competent self as evident in a stupid error. So it could be said of mankind in general, for the problems of the world are very much the problems created by men and their activities – with the efforts at ‘fixing’ things creating more problems than the problems themselves. That men have, for the most part, shaped the modern world, Manchester By The Sea suggests that perhaps is their special place to accept responsibility for making it right. The film also suggests this may be no easy task.

An alternative to a male-dominated world is never really explored, but we are left with a gaping hole in the film, the ‘need’ for someone to step in and take control when nobody really wants to. As with You Can Count On Me, there is an palpable absence in the film that can be, on a simplistic level, defined as God. Or perhaps it is, in this city of fisherman, the Jesus who never shows up, referring to the biblical Jesus who chose to recruit his disciples from among fisherman. On another level, this absence can be defined as the loss of love, or the ability to love one’s self, and to treat one’s self and others with respect.

The self-hatred evident with Lee would, in another era, be fodder for the redemptive role of religion. In this film, the cross is taken on by the individual, who must in a sense take on the role of the Christ in order to find redemption; there is, apparently, no other way for a modern man do so, or so it would seem.  The film lacks any sense of a communal or individual spirituality, outside of an off-the-cuff (and humorous) allusion to Catholicism and the non-consequential appearance of a lone character randomly on the street (played in a cameo by Lonergan himself) who appears briefly (similar to Lonergan’s role as the priest in You Can Count On Me) to chide Lee about his lack of parenting skills.  As with You Can Count On Me, such advice becomes almost comic relief.

Thus suffering, in Lonergan’s tale, is so deep and pervasive that the superficial balm of religion and/or of God can do little to provide comfort. Lee’s mistake, taken as a metaphor for the modern human, puts the only hope for salvation clearly in the hands of mankind itself, and perhaps even more specifically with men themselves, loath as they are nowadays to accept that there may be a sort of universal male attitude problem and inability to mature, particularly in the US, the country that has spread its influence quite effectively in the world, and where the fruits of that influence are a mixed bag, to say the least.

As for the story of Manchester By The Sea, the most moving moment is where Randi forgives Lee. It is in Randi’s forgiveness that the film ultimately speaks to reconciliation and the kind of catharsis that makes for great drama, although again Lee is unable to accept MBTS_3869.CR2Randi’s forgiveness as he can apparently not forgive himself.

At the end of the day, perhaps Manchester By The Sea seems to strike a chord with audiences because it portrays the perceived impossibility of our current world situation, where human beings have created their own hell through their own numerous errors in judgment, and have to somehow either fix it or sink with their own doomed ship.  With the (male defined) world order clearly at risk, and the rise of scapegoating populism, it seems that the forgiveness displayed by Lee’s wife Randi is the only real hope for humanity.

Is this the ‘prescription’ given by Lonergan and Manchester By The Sea? Probably not, as I’m sure Mr. Lonergan would deny the film is in any way prescriptive in nature or perhaps not even recognize some of the comments that I’ve made about his film as being part of his intended result. But still, this is my takeaway and my advice from viewing Manchester By The Sea. For without forgiveness and love – and quietly accepting individual responsibility for our behavior without complaint or expectation of reward – without these qualities, there is only a never ending cycle of hatred and blame.

Don Thompson is a producer, filmmaker and playwright.

Warning: there are potential spoilers in this review.

We’re living in a transitional time, as evident in the upheaval of Presidential Politics in 2016. To a great extent, Hell or High Water, directed by Scottish director David Mackensie, reflects current trends that can trace themselves back most recently to the financial crisis of 2008, but even further to the Iraq War and further still to the dawn of Reaganomics in the early 80’s.

That the American Dream is not working out for everyone has always been the case, particularly for minorities. It seems, however, that this reality has reached an amplified level of desperation for non-minorities as well – specifically the working white poor – and thus is finding its way more actively into our films and our politics. Hell or High Water, with its desperate White Male protagonist Toby hohw2Howard (played with rugged sensitivity by Chris Pine) who tries to outsmart a Banking system that seems intent on manipulating, cheating and throwing him under the proverbial bus (all legally) becomes the perfect anti-hero for today’s political and social realities. Toby, along with his self-destructive and yet self-sacrificing brother Tanner (played ferociously by Ben Foster), paint a pure picture of the moral morass the United States currently finds itself in.

With this particular drama (and this film certainly rises to the level of drama), there is an attempt to explore not only conflict but also what the ancient Greeks would label stasis, or civil strife. This in turn evokes homeostasis – or the tendency to seek balance and stability. We find that balance here in the Texas Ranger Hamilton, played brilliantly by Jeff Bridges, as he attempts both to jbfind justice, remind us that we are a nation and community of laws, but in the end tries to empathize and understand what motivated Toby and his brother to rob a string of banks when apparently they (or so he thought) didn’t really need the money.

We see in Ranger Hamilton an essentially fair-minded individual that gives us hope that stability and the rule of law will indeed prevail, even while the clever are allowed to profit. The clever being seen in both the Banking system and in Toby, who out-wits everyone, and in effect uses his own brother as fodder for the system, even as Toby sacrifices himself for his own (seemingly unappreciative) family.

His brother Tanner was the primordial warrior, needing essentially an enemy to fight in order to give him purpose. While unstated, his brother could have easily been a suicidal Iraq war veteran, although the writer (Black List winner Taylor Sheridan) sought not to expand his themes into that territory. One can only ponder the level of social commentary the film could have leveled on US society should Sheridan have taken that path.

Warriors often wreak damage on the innocent, and Tanner is no exception, made painfully evident to Ranger Hamilton when Tanner kills his partner, mixed Native American officer Ranger Alberto tannergunParker (played humbly by Gil Birmingham).  Hamilton’s response becomes a tete-a-tete of revenge-based politics and war, with one side aiming to get revenge on the other in (what seems to many) an endless series of escalations. In the case of Tanner, the war fortunately ends with his death. In real life, such deaths are usually only the catalyst for more atrocities.

That a Native American descendant would be Tanner’s central victim is no small matter, and also prescient, given the current situation with Native Americans and the Dakota Access pipeline. As Tanner exclaimed , he was a ‘The King of the Plains’ and felt he ‘was a Comanche’ (as told nativechildat the Casino to a Native American customer whom threatened him). As such, Tanner too is a sacrificial warrior, with Hamilton (same last name as a US Founding Father!) doing the deed.

It is no small coincidence for this film that among the primary ideas that Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (the guy on the ten dollar bill) sought to defend were private property and the need for Central Banking. It is this property and land, says Ranger Alberto in the best speech in the film, that the White Man is inevitably bound to lose to the Bankers, just as did the Native Americans did to their conquerors. It was apt then, that Ranger Hamilton be the Banker’s defender in this film.

That civilization uses its warriors as sacrificial lambs in order to maintain social stability is a repeated theme in war films, or films of warriors fighting for some sort of local or community justice, and seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.  Interestingly, the The Magnificent Seven (based on the Seven Samurai) is also having a remake finding itself to the screen. These morally ambiguous stories, where the anti-heroes find themselves fighting ssamuaricorruption for a seemingly unappreciative and/or apathetic society, seem to making their way back to theaters.

Another example of such a film (there are many) that comes to mind would be Michael Mann’s Thief, starring James Caan, where the thief desperately seeks normalcy, only to find that normalcy is an impossibility and a pipe dream. So it is for Toby’s brother Tanner who displays the same kind of self-destructive criminality as found in James Caan’s character in Thief.

As for Hell or High Water, this moral ambiguity is shown as the anti-hero brothers fight against a corrupt system because the brothers did in fact need the money, and the whole scheme was a way to turn the tables on the unfair (either corrupt or borderline corrupt) dealings of their local bank.  Specifically, corruption in the guise of unfair reverse mortgage on their property, a property that Toby had been deeded to by his recently deceased mother and that Toby had found out was sitting on top of a lucrative oil patch.

Hell or High Water also echoes back to a film franchise set during prior transitional political times. During the 70’s, just before Reagan, we had another series of films that one might call reactionary and emblematic of the politics of the time: the Dirty Harry series. Here the steely eyed San Francisco Cop (played iconically by Clint Eastwood) was going to lay the law down on the various threats to the White Man’s dominance of the United States: people of color, immigrants, and other assorted misfits and low lifes.

We can watch closely for a Dirty Harry re-do, with perhaps Donald Trump being the producer.  It may have a limited audience, as Clint Eastwood recently dubbed the millennial generation ‘the Pussy Generation’.

On television, the 70’s had All In The Family (starring Carroll O’Connor), which made fun of conservative politics, but in an oblique way that allowed conservatives themselves to join in on the fun. Hell or High Water, with its social justice meme combined with essentially conservative, libertarian sentiments, uses a similar methodology – allowing the left and right to come together under the same entertainment roof.

Reactionary sensibilities aside, some potentially worthwhile and quintessentially American values are on display in Hell or High Water: those of property ownership, essential fairness and decency, having our children do better than us, financial independence, and rugged individualism are all on display in Hell or High Water.

The film, while on one level a tale of a revolutionary sticking it to the Man, is on the other hand a revelation of human folly. For at the end of the day, the oil that is pumped out of the ground on Toby’s land (now deeded to his Children) may lead to the death of his children’s hope for a future. In clinging to the illusions of past fossil-fuel driven prosperity, Toby may not allow his children the freedom to explore alternatives. This is perhaps the real, off-screen tragedy of Hell or High Water. But then, according to some, we can continue to pump that oil forever, and with no consequence.

But back to Dirty Harry. My sense is that demographics and the preferences of young people have so shifted since the times of Dirty Harry that we will not find a shift in politics to a modern-era Reagan – or certainly not under Donald Trump, who at least for now is trailing at the polls. In today’s harry_callahanworld, the desperate, angry White Male may  have indeed found his match with immigrants, minorities, Soccer Moms and Hillary Clinton, and the resulting resolution may indeed need to be one of peaceful co-existence, or else all these angry White Men can only hope to go down in flames in a sort of nation-wide Waco, Texas confrontation (which occurred under Bill Clinton’s tenure). Let’s hope that’s not the case.

As an interesting side note, Hillary Clinton is the first woman mentioned in this essay.

Don Thompson is an essayist, producer and playwright.

(IndieWire) Summer is chugging along at the specialty box office.

Another acclaimed Sundance 2016 entry, Ira Sachs’ “Little Men” (Magnolia), showed a credible opening in New York and Los Angeles, as two of last week’s Park City 2016 premieres, “Indignation” (Roadside Attractions) and “Gleason” (Open Road), expanded this weekend to varying results.

Read more here...


Spoiler Alert: some story elements are revealed in this essay.

The word revenant means ‘one who has returned from the dead or from a long absence’.  In the case of Alejandro Iñárritu’s film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and written by Iñárritu with Mark Smith, it is DiCaprio’s true-to-history character of Hugh Glass that returns in order to take therevenatrevenge on the man who killed his son. So the story of The Revenant is one of nature and revenge, and nothing more.

That’s the simple part.

The not so simple part is actually analyzing this multi-layered film as a drama that transcends the revenge label to unveil a meditation on the relative nature of good and evil. As such The Revenant speaks to a modern audience who has in many ways lost the meaning of the word drama. The Revenant reintroduces film-goers to this recently problematic word as it explores the primal meaning of the human experience and attempts to strip bare civilized man (I say man because it is a film very much about men) to reveal what lies beneath.

Dramatists, artists and mystics, for the most part, seek to have us question the idea of absolute good and evil and hint at a common humanity that transcends our differences. The alternative is not really drama but more aptly labeled melodrama – what we are typically given in the name of drama.

This Trojan Horse agenda of the dramatist, artist and mystic – this request for us to question our simple and absolute morality – is at the heart of The Revenant. Yet, at the same time, the film portrays the tendency to seek absolutes in a relative world to be at the heart of the human experience, rising from the tendency to hate what brings us pain and to love what brings us pleasure. However, this film reveals, like any good drama will, that this primal human motive in no way shape or form delineates absolute good and evil, which is shown to be a chimera, changeable, relative, and completely dependent on your point of view.

To the Arikara tribe, the Americans are the enemy. To the Pawnee tribe, the French are the enemy.  To the lone Pawnee, the American Hugh Glass is a friend. To Hugh Glass, Fitzgerald is an enemy. To Fitzgerald, Hugh Glass who betrayed his deal with him is the enemy. To the Europeans, the lone Pawnee is an enemy. To the Americans, the Indians in general are the enemy. To the daughter of the Arikara leader, the character of Glass is a hero. To the American Captain, the child-man Bridger is revealed as a hero.  To the Grizzly Bear protecting her cubs and almost killing Hugh Glass, Glass himself is the enemy – and she is in many ways, in her primal protective mode, creating the entire dramatic context of the story.

Who then is the enemy, what then is this evil? Is it really mankind, imposing its will on pristine nature?

‘I leave the revenge to the Creator’, advises the lone Pawnee man to Glass, and Glass echoes this to Fitzgerald later in the story. The film, in conclusion, indicates it is better for human beings not to judge. This, indicates The Revenant, is the wiser path. That said, nature may not be without her own form of judgement.

As I watched The Revenant two other filmmakers came to my mind: Terrence Malick and P.T. Anderson, and more specifically Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World and Anderson’s There Will Be Blood.  Reviews written by myself for Tree of Life and There Will Be Blood can be found here and here.

Misha Petrick has also compared Andrei Tarkovsky‘s visual style to The Revenant in a split screen video here, and Iñárritu himself suggested that Tarkovsky has had a deep influence on him. I have not seen all of Tarkovsky’s films but found the visual comparison compelling. In interviews, Iñárritu also mentions Herzog, Kurosawa, and others as influences on The Revenant.

That said, Malick’s The Tree of Life and The New World also seem to me to be visual predecessors to The Revenant. Tree of Life and The New World, like Revenant, had a love affair between nature and the camera (in the case of The Revenant, an entirely new camera technology used to brilliant effect by cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who also shot The Tree of Life). Regardless, the result is art: the stillness of nature and its pristine framework forms the backdrop for men’s selfish machinations.

Nature, and particularly water, factor heavily in The Revenant as forces of both destruction and renewal. Many of the scenes of Revenant are directly or indirectly associated with streams or rivers. The dual nature of water, as both a destructive and redemptive force, are key to the evolution of the story.  So too in Tree of Life did the river become a redemptive force as the young boy Jack seeks to wash his sins away with the nightgown scene. The water cleanses, renews, and washes away the old in favor of the new.

As in The Tree of LifeThe Revenant shows that humankind’s social reality exists only within the context of a wider nature that is in many ways cold and without mercy. If mercy exists anywhere, The Revenant  shows it to be in the small, individual human gesture, such as when Bridger offers food to the Indian woman or leaves the canteen with Glass with the labyrinth-like design etched on it. The key difference between The Tree of Life and The Revenant is that while the former posits that compassionate choice may exist outside of the individual human and arise out of nature itself, The Revenant  more closely associates any potential compassion with the human realm; thus Tree of Life more directly supports the view that there is some sort of proto-rational, pre-human intelligence that leads us to choose compassion. For The Revenant, the creator God is reflected as a cold and judgmental nature, a nature that is essentially detached unless that detachment is altered by human will.

Tree of Life also suggests a detached universe reflected in the primordial expression of space and time that ultimately seeks a compassionate viewpoint when individual sentience (even animal sentience) arises. To Malick, as expressed in Tree of Life, this detachment could come in the way of an errant asteroid, also hinted at in The Revenant as the meteor flies overhead and lands somewhere in the distance. Both films posit that humanity lives within a certain folly in its obsession with the petty concerns of profit and loss, of pleasure and pain. That is, unless you’re a human being, in which case these petty human considerations are of life and death importance, and the meteor passing overhead is only a brief reminder of potential destruction and judgement from above, quickly forgotten as the next distraction takes hold of one’s consciousness and edges a person such as Fitzgerald in The Revenant to salvage the pelts, get the money, and pave one’s proverbial path to Texas.

It is in the mud that humanity must apparently sludge through in order to find redemption, and receive a glimpse of love and happiness.

What then is this love? Where shall it be found? Does love really present itself only when the proper choices are made, and when mankind turns away from hatred and realizes that nature (or God?) does not really judge us at all, that this too is a concept laid upon a pristine reality by the human mind?

These thoughts and questions meander through my own mind when reflecting back on The Revenant.

As for P.T. Anderson’s There Will Be Blood I am reminded that blood, like water, is a primal force as it is in The Revenant. Blood is, it seems, the sacrifice required for growth in this world. So is Hugh Glass ‘reborn’ from the blood and guts from the ‘womb’ of the Horse, just as much as he is almost killed by the bloody attack from the Bear. Nature both gives and takes life, and blood and violence is required. The ‘fall’ into the womb of the horse therevenant3(like a lower realm of hell in Dante’s Inferno) also rebirths Glass into the more hate-filled and obsessive purpose of revenge, whereas prior he had primarily been motivated by the desire to live and breath. It is only the mercy of women, along with restraint in judging Fitzgerald, that eventually leads Glass back to human love.

For P.T. Anderson, violence is also justified, for it makes way for the new. In There Will Be Blood Anderson seems to promote the necessary bloodletting of the weak by the powerful, as the weak would have humanity forever acquiescing and accepting ‘the will of God/Nature’ and suffer needlessly as a result. This luddite thinking must be removed for progress to occur, or so goes the modern myth. Nature and others must be sacrificed, often violently, in the name of human progress, even if that progress ultimately destroys what it sought to merely dominate.

To D.D Lewis’s character Daniel Plainview, the protagonist of There Will Be Blood, those that seek a bloodless world are naïve and stripping mankind of the very force that gives it life and propels humanity forward. Thus Heaven or ‘spirit’, should they exist, are simply bloodless realities that the weak perennially and naively seek in order to escape what cannot be escaped from, the primal force of cold nature that doesn’t give a damn about them.

To the materialist, the ‘spiritual’ scenes in The Revenant of Glass vis-à-vis his wife are but mirages, hallucinations and mad meanderings. To the spiritual, they are visions of a greater, alternative world that transcends the perennial, bloody savagery of human life – no matter how hidden, sublimated, air brushed and ‘oh my goshed’ out of existence it is in our modern era – a savagery that buttresses the material world in its quest for food and shelter. The spiritual person replies that even if such realities are created by a hallucinatory mind, what makes them any less real than the hallucinations therevenant2of money and profit, of the shimmering hope of getting some land in Texas to settle down, as was the hope of the materialist Fitzgerald, a man who mocked God? His hope too, ultimately, was a chimera, a mirage, and a pipe dream. So too might be the very notion of human progress.

Whether ‘real’ or ‘imaginary’ (with human beings the two often meld) it seems that human beings need a purpose.

It seems to me that human beings need a purpose in order to keep moving forward materially, artistically, or even spiritually. Without a purpose, whether that be revenge or love, heaven or hell, family or friends, profit or art, people cannot be adequately called human. Perhaps the problem with most of us is that we tend to let others define our purpose, rather than choose it for ourselves.

For the character of Hugh Glass in The Revenant, he very much chose his purpose by reacting to circumstances in a certain way.

For 20th Century Fox, an American Studio that put their stamp on an epic, big budget dramatic feature telling a human story that is not a super-hero movie or cartoonish blockbuster – and not gone to their ‘independent’ subsidiary to do so – perhaps that is another return from a long absence, another revenant of sorts. Time will tell.

Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist.


Lucy, the latest action sci-fi thriller from director Luc Besson (The Fifth Element), takes on some fertile new thematic territory even as it builds on past films and ideas taken from neuroscience, the New Age movement, theoretical physics, and Eastern mysticism. I felt compelled to write about Lucy because of my unique background and familiarity with some of the ideas Besson is likely influenced by. I’m pretty sure most other reviewers will not be making quite the same connections that I will set forth here, so you might find what’s laid out below an interesting (if lucyunusual and eclectic) read.

In a statement about Lucy, Besson mentions that the film is primarily influenced by his own film The Professional, as well as Christopher Nolan’s Inception, and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. That statement can be found here and seems intended to help market the film. What I’d like to do here is open up the discussion about Lucy to some additional areas the filmmaker (to my knowledge) hasn’t mentioned. Bear in mind we may never know the full extent of what influenced Besson.

First, I think the film’s exploration of the question “what if we used 100% of our brain’s capability?” should be understood in the context of the human potential movement, which itself is an amorphous, multi-faceted phenomena. From the standpoint of  mainstream, Cineplex-targeted film making, this subject rarely gets the air time seen with Lucy. More on that in a bit.

I read one discouraged reviewer, who felt the film might get an opening weekend bump from the fact it stars Scarlett Johansson, was easily marketable from an action-film standpoint, and was directed by a filmmaker of some renown. However, lousy word of mouth, this same reviewer argued, would soon sink the ship. We’ll have to see if he’s right.  I have a little more faith in people and in the potential for Lucy to reach a very wide audience; but then I tend to be an optimist. Notably, The Fifth Element was no favorite of the critics, but went on to cult film status and endless repeats on cable.

One reason I’m an optimist is that Lucy seems similar in ambition to What the Bleep Do We Know – the docu-fiction created by William Arntz – a film that showed that there is a pent-up audience for this kind of material. What The Bleep went on to influence (or be corrected by, depending on your perspective) the TV Series Through the Wormhole Hole with Morgan Freeman, and of course Morgan Freeman ends up playing the college professor Samuel Norman in Lucy, expounding human potential ideas in much the same way that the various scientists did in What the Bleep.

The idea that ‘everything comes from nothing’ (Lucy’s ultimate enlightenment) is a concept that might seem unique to Lucy but in fact traces its roots to quantum physics. My introduction to this idea came through a ground-breaking book titled The Tao of Physics by Fritjof Capra, a work that became well-known during the 1970’s and was one of the first books (that I know of) to link mysticism and physics. That book inspired my film Clouds.

Moreover, the Buddhist philosophy of ‘emptiness’ and the mystical idea of the ‘light body’ are also in line with Lucy’s final enlightenment experience. You can read more about the Buddhist light (or ‘rainbow’) body experience here — the phenomena is also described at length in David Wilcock’s book The Source Field Investigations.

Now the human potential movement can be roughly divided into at least two main camps: the humanists (or one might say spiritual humanists, which I describe in another blog here) and the trans-humanists. Both believe human beings must evolve in order for the planet to survive. The former offers a human-based and/or spiritual resolution to human evolution, the latter a scientific and technological answer.

Besson is certainly laying out the argument in this film that evolution is indeed required for survival: the question will become whose kind of evolution this is. The film, to me, sides mostly with the trans-humanists and thus the corporate and scientific answer to the problem of human evolution. The main reason that corporations in general support a trans-humanist agenda is that it can be commodified, sold, patented and owned. In a nutshell, it is profitable.

The trans-humanists will argue that human evolution must at this point require scientific enhancement and an ‘upgrade’, technologically driven, of the human genome. This ‘upgrade’ (or variations thereof) would again be corporate owned and patented. To many Christians, trans-humanism, secular humanism or any other stripe of humanism is a bad thing because you shouldn’t put mankind before God.

I take somewhat of a wider, more tolerant, view of the humanism(s) and their outlook(s). Traditional humanists (again, some of whom would be more aptly called spiritual humanists) have a rich tradition of self-help and self-improvement, ranging from the practical to the esoteric.  Some of this practical advice springs from the Christian culture itself. We have as examples Dale Carnegie’s classic best-selling book How To Win Friends And Influence People, and the more recent The Purpose Driven Life by Rick Warren. While Johansson’s Lucy obviously never read either of those books, please bear with me.

There is also a long tradition of Indian and Eastern mysticism which uses its own form of ‘upgrade technology’ in the form of esoteric meditation techniques.  I’ll use as an example the Kriya Yoga techniques of Paramahansa Yogananda, as passed down through a lineage of teachers coming out of India and (if you believe) traces its roots back thousands of years. The explicitly stated goal of Kriya Yoga is to accelerate human evolution.

Interestingly, one of Steve Jobs’ favorite books was Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi. If ever there was a proponent of human evolution, it was Jobs.

Similarly, the Tamil Siddha tradition seeks to evolve human consciousness through the practice of certain mantras that, according to the practitioners, create the ‘siddha powers’ that are evident (in some ways) in the character of Lucy. Super human powers are also, of course, very much on display in film via the super hero genre, so that is no great news. Also, themes of scientifically induced enhanced brain capacity have been explored in other films such as Limitless.

What is news is that there may indeed eventually be an actual technological link to enhance human capability that will make the synthetic cocktail ingested accidentally by Lucy a very real (albeit expensive) option for some people — likely the rich who would rather evolve while sun-bathing on a yacht than while sitting in some cave meditating. Genetic screening and therapies are already a reality; rest assured the upgrade cocktail that expands IQ, memory, longevity, virility, etc. is not far behind. (An interesting article regarding genetic modification and extended lifespans can be found here.)

However, as explored in Lucy, another impact of such a cocktail could be an incredibly expanded awareness, tantamount to the mystical goals of omniscience, omnipresence and omnipotence as laid out by the Tamil Siddhas. Admittedly, one can easily dismiss the whole notion of this brand of human potential as a myth, whether generated by science or yogic methods.

Proponents of yogic mysticism, however, apparently have great faith in their practices, are notably democratic and would like the entirety of humanity to evolve, not just the wealthy who can afford an expensive genetic cocktail and have zero faith in any kind of spirituality. A spirituality that might inspire, among other supposedly bad ideas, wide-spread compassion (generally propagated by mystics) that could discourage our world leader’s penchant for starting a war every five minutes and/or negatively impact one’s stock portfolio.

Yeah, give me Lucy, sexy Lucy, guns a blazing, butt swiveling, making those bad Asians impotent in front of our very eyes – now there’s some marketing potential for you.

That said, Besson slips in some very subtle story telling prowess to assure me with Lucy that he hasn’t bailed out on the love and goodness he was propagating with The Fifth Element. While Lucy comes to a much more clinical enlightenment than did Leeloo (played by Milla Jovovich) in The Fifth Element, she does, over the course of the story, stop resorting to violence. Lucy immobilizes her adversaries toward the end – she does not kill them. Ultimately she transcends the enemy. Besson, albeit in a fairly subtle way, reminds us that ultimately evolution = compassion.

At the end of the film, per Professor Norman’s wise suggestion, Lucy decides to pass on whatever knowledge she gained. It was apparently this wisdom she lacked, even with all of her new-found powers. In short, even God (or the Goddess) may need a teacher.

I am reminded of another story that shows us how compassion should go hand in hand with scientifically enhanced human evolution: a 1963 Outer Limits episode titled The Sixth Finger starring David McCallum. A YouTube link to the final few minutes of that poignant episode is here or you can find the entire episode on Hulu here.

This is how the narrator sums up the scientist’s attempt to accelerate human intelligence  in The Sixth Finger — words that could just as well be applied to Lucy:

“An experiment too soon, too swift, and yet, may we not still hope to discover a method by which within one generation the whole human race could be rendered intelligent, beyond hatred or revenge or the desire for power? Is that not after all the ultimate goal of evolution?”

As for Lucy, after initially losing her sense of empathy, her shift back toward compassion is a little less spelled out. So it may be up to me, the humble reviewer, to let you in on it. Even though Luc Besson may believe greed jeopardizes the human race, he has not jumped ship on the altruists! Lucy does eventually evolve toward non-violence. Amen.

Actually I’m sure many of you will get this point from the film itself, but in case not I feel compelled to remind you.

Still, it’s the males in the film – notably the Caucasians and the Asians (a hint at WW III?) – that in the end keep killing each other like rats on a sinking ship. This may be why the Dalai Lama says that the next step in human evolution is up to the women – notably women of the West.

He  is probably right.

Finally, let’s not let the irony of Lucy escape us. Whether through science or yogic mysticism, humans will evolve, and probably in ways unforeseen by the unenlightened, gun for hire scientists and capitalists seeking profit. In other words, nature is not without her trickery. She will eventually get us where we need to be, by whatever means possible.


Don Thompson is a producer, playwright and essayist. He has edited/authored two anthologies of essays: Your Life Is A Movie and  A World Without War, both available from Del Sol Press.

We at nextPix have always felt that socially relevant media would become more and more necessary and important as we moved into the new century. Issues of global economics, the environment, poverty, oppression – along with countless other pressing social problems – would be front and center in a new media age that focused on common human values. A Place at the Table, which I had the privilege of seeing at a recent screening in San Francisco, is an example of how this continues to hold true and demonstrates the significant shape socially relevant media can take.placeattable

Produced by Participant, the most well-known progenitor of socially conscious media, A Place at the Table chronicles an extremely important issue in this country: hunger in the midst of apparent plenty. Directed by Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush and featuring the celebrity clout of Jeff Bridges, the film delves into a paradoxical reality in America today: how we as a nation can be under and/or malnourished and yet, ironically, extremely efficient at producing vast quantities of food. The basic syndrome is known as ‘food insecurity’, and over 50 million Americans – one in four children – fall into the category of not knowing where their next meal is coming from.

The questions the film asks include: what kind of food do we produce, who consumes the worst of it, and how and why does this happen? Toward this end, the film a) conveys the problem, b) frames the debate and c) offers solutions. All three are done effectively, although in my own opinion some of the solutions explored in the film could have been expanded and elaborated on in a fashion that could reconcile the ‘left/right’ way the issue was sometimes framed.

According to A Place at the Table, a perhaps unintended but nonetheless  unholy alliance has formed between subsidized agribusiness, private food banks, charitable institutions, bad or gutted federal policy and, by implication, a health care industry that profits from a high quantity of diabetic, obese and otherwise sick people neatly provided to them by a dysfunctional system. We get quite a clear picture of who benefits from the current situation: large corporations.

The issue is fundamentally one of priorities and money: we subsidize the production of a few staple crops that get force-fed at the low (cost) spectrum of the food chain to the poor, who then can’t afford better food, and become trapped in a vicious poverty cycle that starts with being ill-fed, particularly as children. The result is kids who often can’t learn and grow up to be sick adults. To put it differently, we feed poor children foods that either buttress or in some cases create developmental challenges that keep them in endless rounds of poverty, lack of opportunity, illness and hopelessness that nonetheless keeps the large food and (by implication) health care providers and pharmaceuticals happy.

The film frames the debate by stating that the problem was, at one point, solved (during the 70’s) by visionary bi-partisan legislation starting with the Nixon administration. These visionary food programs, including an expansion of school lunch programs and adding a breakfast equivalent, were subsequently gutted during the 1980’s and replaced by private (often ‘faith-based’) food banks and charities that rely heavily on the excess production of the producers of cheap processed foods, and subsequently used to stuff the  poor with their so-called generosity. While these efforts are (sometimes) well-intended, the message is clear: food banks ran by churches and other private institutions are not providing the kind of foods that poor children need to thrive, but instead give them an unending diet of chips, cookies, cakes and – to put it bluntly all the foods the educated middle class (whether left or right) tries to avoid.

The film’s point couldn’t be more clear. We are slowly killing a certain segment of our population and that, illogical as this may seem to large corporations,  is not in the best interest of our country over the long-term. Further, much of our current policy seems to have a certain hint of insanity to it. It is the result of a focus on the profit motive outside of other considerations that (used to be) the purview of common sense and rationality of mature (mostly male) leaders,  a type of wisdom and sense of social responsibility that does not seem to be a prerequisite for entry into some of the corporate boardrooms of the mega companies that create many of the foods we consume. Perhaps that can change.

The film lays out the debate in a bi-partisan way, and is an equal opportunity identifier of legislative stupidity and policy myopia.  However, it is mostly the Republican right, from Reagan forward, that gets the brunt of the blame for the current situation. To be sure, the solutions offered could  be a little more broad-based;  the film seemed (at least to me) to say ‘let’s re-institute the laws of 30 years ago’. I’m not sure that’s the best solution. For one, as the film notes we already have an extensive infrastructure of privately operated food banks in this country. Why don’t we influence those organizations to provide the best foods to the poor instead of just blaming them for the problem? Perhaps the food banks could work with farmer’s markets, for example, well-known for producing great food (although with short shelf life) and also becoming very wide-spread. It does appear that some ‘outside of the box’ thinking is already occurring  — at the preview screening I attended, a spokesperson for Plum Organics stated they were committed to providing high quality, nutritious (and probably processed with a relatively long shelf life) foods to children through a program they would set up.

Another obvious fact is that people are simply not paid enough money for their work. This fact is becoming (fortunately) more widely known: we do not compensate our lowest paid workers what they should be relative to the productivity increases we have seen as society over the past 30 years. Rather, those gains have been channeled (mostly) to investors. In short, we need higher minimum wages – much higher than we see today. And if a company cannot afford these wages, we need to create basic income mechanisms that make sure people are functioning at an acceptable economic level; based on current studies, that would translate to over $20 an hour for a full-time worker.

While the film may not have explored the full swath of solutions available (perhaps perceiving some of them as being political non-starters in these days of sequestration), this does not undermine the extremely important message it conveys regarding the ‘syndrome’ of hunger and food insecurity in a nation that is supposedly the richest in the world. I urge everyone who reads this blog to see the film: you will be changed and educated as a result.

More information about the film and what you can do to get involved can be found here.


D.R. Thompson is an award-winning filmmaker, playwright and essayist. His latest book of essays, A WORLD WITHOUT WAR, is now available from Del Sol Press. You can email Thompson at and visit nextpix at

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