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Further Reading

The Crux Project Archives: Film

TEN FILMS THAT ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

Some movies just make you want to rethink your life.

by Bobby Maddex

Okay, so The Passion didn't have the impact on people's lives that was expected of the highly publicized epic. There are any number of ways to account for this phenomenon. Perhaps the film was too heavy-handed for some viewers, so raw in its presentation of human torment that it detracted from whatever compelling message was also present. Or, it could be that the movie's focus, limited to the hours leading up to Christ's crucifixion, didn't allow enough room for an exploration of the revolutionary lifestyle that prompted those final excruciating moments. Whatever the reason, despite record ticket sales and unprecedented hype, The Passion left attendees horrified but unmoved.

I would argue that the film failed to give audience members something on which to chew while driving home. Think about the movies that stay with you, those that elicit multiple viewings—even occasionally cult followings. It's not the images that infect you as much as it is the difficult ethical and philosophical conundrums that go unanswered. In trying to wrestle with these problems yourself, you find that you are changing, pushing your mind into unexplored territory. The Passion, while laudable in many respects, simply missed the boat in this regard; it opted to portray instead of probe.

And so rather than subject yourself to another ineffectual dose of Mel Gibson's didactic blockbuster, why not watch something that truly has the potential to reorient your life. Here are ten films that not only pose more questions than answers but choose to do so in the areas that matter most. What do I mean? Watch them and be changed.

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing (2001)
STARRING: Matthew McConaughey, Alan Arkin, Clea Duvall, John Turturro, Amy Irving
WRITTEN BY: Karen and Jill Sprecher
DIRECTED BY: Jill Sprecher

Question: It's not giving anything away to state that the "one thing" around which the movie revolves is human happiness. What is it? How does one achieve it? What's the point of seeking it? Over the course of three separate stories that eventually interlock in surprising ways, a young lawyer hits a pedestrian with his car and then leaves her for dead, an insurance investigator fires an assistant to see if it will change his sunny outlook on life, and a college professor leaves his wife in search of a less predictable existence. In each case, the characters are forced to grapple with the outcomes of their choices. What they learn, however, is left for you to figure out.

Quote: "It's perverse, isn't it? People spend years developing their minds and educating themselves, but in the end they just want to shut them off."

Quality: Sprecher's spare sets and drab color schemes offer the perfect backdrop for each of the well-written conversations. Also effective is the acting; punctuated by awkward silences and long meaningful glances, the performances are arresting and utterly watchable. Arkin practically chews the scenery. A very meticulous directorial debut.


Waking Life
(2001)

STARRING: Wiley Wiggins, Richard Linklater, Bill Wise
WRITTEN BY: Richard Linklater
DIRECTED BY: Richard Linklater

Question: Is there a deeper reality? How do we distinguish between the real and the imagined, between our desires and the truth? What do dreams tell us about life and death? Director Linklater poses these questions and more in an animated film about a man who floats (quite literally at times) through a dreamscape while trying to wake up. The unnamed protagonist meets many people along the way, some of whom offer single-sentence observations on life, while others share involved theories on the nature of existence.

Quote: "They say that dreams are only real as long as they last. Couldn't you say the same thing about life?"

Quality: The majority of the performers are not professional actors and so the dialogue drags a bit at times, but the film is not in any way boring. On the contrary, Linklater used dozens of animators to construct his fantasy world; the look of the film is thus in constant flux, complementing the changing riffs on reality and compensating for the occasional monotone delivery. Fascinating.


The Ice Storm
(1997)

STARRING: Joan Allen, Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Kline, Elijah Wood, Tobey MacGuire
WRITTEN BY: Rick Moody and James Schamus
DIRECTED BY: Ang Lee

Question: Set during Thanksgiving in 1973, the film chronicles the moral collapse of a small New England town and the resultant impact on two middle-class families. Are social taboos arbitrary? What is morality? Do we deserve satisfaction in life? Ang Lee hints at these questions without asking them explicitly. The ice storm of the title is likewise treated in an elusive fashion. Are we meant to take it at face value or is it supposed to evoke the frozen hearts that occupy New Canaan, Connecticut?

Quote: "Ben, you're boring me. I have a husband. I don't have a need for another one."

Quality: This is Lee's best film by far. The ice imagery alone fills one with a kind of shuddery dread, as do the repeated references to various nihilistic philosophers. Weaver deserved an Academy Award nomination for her portrayal of Janey Carver, the unfeeling ice queen who rests at the center of her community's existentialist void.


The Big Kahuna
(1999)

STARRING: Kevin Spacey, Danny DeVito, Peter Facinelli
WRITTEN BY: Roger Rueff
DIRECTED BY: John Swanbeck

Question: Based on a play of the same name, this movie about three industrial lubricant salesman who gather in a hotel room to plot a sales strategy is one of the first to portray religious belief in a sympathetic manner. When it turns out that the youngest of the salesmen, a born-again Christian, has developed a direct line to the wealthiest of the firm's clientele, the other two turn on him and make an issue of his faith. Is antagonism toward Christianity justified or is there something else at stake in such hostility? Director Rueff lets you decide.

Quote: "A man hasn't any idea what his soul looks like until he gazes into the eyes of the woman that he's married to. And then, if he's any kind of decent human being, he spends the next couple of days throwing up. Because no honest man can stand that image."

Quality: Short but sweet, the film crackles with the energy of both Spacey's and DeVito's performances. Less impressive is the look of the film, which has the pallor at times of an after-school special. But as one would expect from a stage play, the dialogue rips and pops with felt emotion and the well-turned phrase. As always, Spacey steals the show.


The Apostle
(1997)

STARRING: Robert Duvall, Farah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, June Carter Cash
WRITTEN BY: Robert Duvall
DIRECTED BY: Robert Duvall

Question: In the manner of a Flannery O'Connor story, Duvall's film offers redemption to a character who deserves damnation. After learning that his wife is having an affair with a young minister, Sonny Dewey hits the latter with a softball bat and puts him into a coma. He then leaves town, changes his name, and begins preaching on a local radio station. Among the many questions that the movie asks are whether a seriously flawed human being is capable of doing good and whether such good matters when emanating from mixed motives.

Quote: "I may be on the devil's hit list, but I'm on God's mailing list."

Quality: Although slow in parts, Duvall's use of a real-life church congregation helps authenticate what could have been a mere rehash of Elmer Gantry. Indeed, what strikes one most about this film is how real it all seems. No character is clichéd or stereotyped, and Sonny may be one of the most rounded characters to hit the big screen. Equal parts sinner and saint, he is an icon of the everyman.


The Addiction
(1995)

STARRING: Lili Taylor, Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra
WRITTEN BY: Nicholas St. John
DIRECTED BY: Abel Ferrara

Question: What is sin? Why do we commit evil acts? Are humans inherently evil? Ferrara explores these questions in a vampire film, of all things. A philosophy doctoral candidate is dragged into an alley and bitten by a vampire. Slowly, she begins to crave blood until the craving develops into a full-blown addiction—a desire that can never be satisfied. Despite one horrific bloodbath, the movie's vampirism is not so much a focal point as a lens through which to examine the concept of evil.

Quote: "We're not evil because of the evil we do, but we do evil because we are evil."

Quality: The film's many obscure philosophical references are often esoteric, but you don't need to understand them to make sense of what is ultimately one big allegory. Shot in black-and-white and accompanied by a great musical score, Ferrara outdoes his subsequent film on sin and redemption, The Funeral. Sciorra, Walken, and Taylor all deliver tremendous performances.


Solaris
(2002)

STARRING: George Clooney, Natascha McElhone, Jeremy Davies
WRITTEN BY: Stanislaw Lem and Steven Soderbergh
DIRECTED BY: Steven Soderbergh

Question: Yes, I know; it's completely uncool to prefer this film to the original directed by Andrei Tarkovsky, but I just can't help it. Soderbergh's slick visual style in this sci-fi instructional tale about a psychiatrist sent to a space station to rescue a crew of space explorers is a near perfect match for the superficial psycho-babble of the movie's protagonist. Indeed, all of Chris Klein's philosophizing falls flat when confronted by his dead wife, whom the mysterious planet Solaris somehow brings back to life. What is memory? To what degree are we controlled by memory? Do we have an obligation to bury the past? These are the questions that Soderbergh's film asks in a more blatant way than that of Tarkovsky.

Quote: "And death shall have no dominion. Dead men, naked, they shall be one with the man in the wind and the west moon. When their bones are picked clean, and the clean bones gone, they shall have stars at elbow and foot."

Quality: Soderbergh is the master of combining indie camera innovations with Hollywood storytelling. I probably would have picked a different actor for the lead role (Clooney's talent is rather suspect, in my opinion), but this is a small blight on an otherwise fascinating production.


Magnolia
(1999)

STARRING: Tom Cruise, William H. Macy, Phillip Seymour Hoffman
WRITTEN BY: Paul Thomas Anderson
DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson

Question: All talk and no action: this is the characteristic that binds together each of the characters in Anderson's searing indictment of Los Angeles and the empty values contained therein. What does it take to achieve community? When does ambition give way to self-obsession? Do we even need other people? An impressive ensemble cast of nine actors at the top of their respective games lives out such questions in a film that revolves around the game show "What Do Kids Know," which features a team of three children matching wits with several knowledgeable adults.

Quote: "In this life, it's not what you hope for; it's not what you deserve—it's what you take."

Quality: The film showcases Tom Cruise's best performance by far, even if it does contain some of the crassest dialogue that I have ever heard. Even more impressive is the way in which Anderson mixes fantasy with stark realism; I am thinking especially of the plague of falling frogs with which the movie concludes.


House of Sand and Fog
(2003)

STARRING: Jennifer Connelly, Ben Kingsley, Ron Eldard
WRITTEN BY: Andres Dubus III and Vadim Perelman
DIRECTED BY: Vadim Perelman

Question: What is true honor and courage? Is integrity possible in contemporary American society? Massoud Amir Behrani, an Iranian immigrant and the character whose actions produce such queries, spends most of his life savings trying to enhance his daughter's chances of a good marriage. Once she is married, he spends the remaining funds on a house at an auction, unwittingly putting himself and his family in the middle of a legal tussle with the house's former owner.

Quote: "Americans: they do not deserve what they have. They have the eyes of small children who are forever looking for the next source of distraction, entertainment, sweet taste in the mouth."

Quality: Jennifer Connelly's performance is all weepy eyes and wringing hands, but Kingsley nearly tops his title role in the 1982 film Gandhi. Perelman's gentle directorial hand, which belies the movie's violent conclusion, effortlessly transforms the house in question into a symbol of hope for Behrani and an emblem of irresponsibility for former owner Kathy. Probably the best film of 2003.


The Decalogue
(1987)

STARRING: Miroslaw Baka, Henryk Baranowski, Artur Barcis
WRITTEN BY: Krzystof Kieslowski and Krzystof Piesiewicz
DIRECTED BY: Krzystof Kieslowski

Question: O.K., so this is actually a collection of ten short films originally broadcast on Polish television. When taken together, however, the segments comprise what might be the greatest movie ever made. Each episode loosely based on one of the ten commandments, the series puts American television to shame, recounting with artful intensity the tragic lives contained in a seedy Warsaw apartment complex. Writer Piesiewicz, a former lawyer, is very upfront about the questions he was trying to ask with the piece: "I was not so much interested in what man had done, but why? What happens to a human being? What should we do with him? Why does a human suddenly become an animal?"

Quote: "Love is in one's heart, not between one's legs."

Quality: The above quote is about as close as the films get to making a philosophical statement. Like the expert storyteller he is, Kieslowski chooses to let his characters enact their violations of the ten commandments rather than talk about them. And it is these performances, more so even than the director's unique and attractive filming of them, that hammer home the eternal logic inscribed on these Old Testament tablets. •

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