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Daily Reads: Terrence Malick’s Christian Connections, Why the Bonnie and Clyde Legend Lives on, and More

Daily Reads: Terrence Malick's Christian Connections, Why the Bonnie and Clyde Legend Lives on, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. Terrence Malick and the Christian Story.
Terrence Malick’s new film “Knight of Cups” has had a fairly polarized reaction, a given considering Malick’s style is so unique. Some have praised it as a truly necessary cinematic experience that only Malick can provide, and others have called it a pretentious, indulgent mess. For RogerEbert.com, David Roark examines Malick’s films and their connection to Christianity.

Malick’s films function as cinematic liturgies that paint a distinctly Christian picture of the good life — the kingdom of God — reflecting the gospel story of creation, fall, redemption and restoration. More so, Malick’s works embody a unique lyrical, poetical form that, like music, does not only create emotion in viewers but also shapes viewers. In an essay on “To the Wonder,” film critic Nick Olson underscores the formative nature of Malick’s lyrical style: “[Malick] seems to me to be pressing for us to awaken our own inner depths of subjectivity and inhabit the outlines he’s setting forth. He wants these grace notes to profoundly shape us — to impress upon us in the most personal way.” On the one hand, there are a number of Christian ideas on the surface of Malick’s work, whether it be the locusts in “Days of Heaven” that parallel the plagues of Egypt from the book of Exodus or the theological debate between Witt and Welsh in “The Thin Red Line.” But the presence of such symbols and themes isn’t necessarily the thing that distinguishes Malick’s work. After all, there are a number of movies, books and stories that allude to the Bible — it’s one of the most significant pieces of literature in history. On the other hand, when digging deeper beyond the surface, there lies a particular spirituality — a distinctly Christian spirituality — that supersedes these many elements. At the bottom of Malick’s work, there is a prominent, consistent narrative and vision that drives it forward—that of the Christian story. This story is, first and foremost, what makes Malick’s films liturgical in a Christian sense. While all of his films fall in line with the Christian meta-narrative to some degree while boasting a yearning for Eden, Malick realizes this story mainly through the concept of nature and grace. “The Tree of Life,” a film which not only epitomizes the ethos of Malick but also provides a microscope by which to see all his films, deals with this concept the most explicitly. In a voice-over at the beginning of the film, we hear Mrs. O’Brien (Jessica Chastain) explain two ways through life: “the way of grace” and “the way of nature.” She states, “Grace doesn’t try to please itself. Accepts being slighted, forgotten, disliked. Accepts insults and injuries…Nature only wants to please itself. Get others to please it over them. To have its own way.” Influenced by Christians thinkers like Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and actually lifted directly from Thomas à Kempis’ “The Imitation of Christ,” these words don’t merely express a generic, universal morality about being good or being bad; they make up a distinct Christian doctrine about the nature of humankind and the grace of God through Jesus Christ. Malick affirms the Christian distinctiveness of the concept in a church scene: “Is there nothing which is deathless, nothing which does not pass away?” the preacher asks the congregation, and the camera pans on a stained glass portrait of Jesus Christ. The preacher goes on, “We cannot stay where we are. We must journey forward. We must find that which is greater than fortune or fate. Nothing can bring us peace but that.”

2. Why We Keep the Legend of Bonnie and Clyde Alive.
Kelly Reichardt’s little-seen 1994 debut film “River of Grass” has recently received a new restoration. Originally premiering at Sundance but eventually forgotten until Reichardt made a new film in 2006, “River of Grass” follows two new lovers who go on the run after believing they have killed a man. In light of “River of Grass'” re-release, Christianity Today’s Alissa Wilkinson examines the Bonnie and Clyde legend and why we still keep it alive.

There must be a reason we keep remaking the story of Bonnie and Clyde, right? The couple on a crime spree long ago passed from historical fact — early twentieth century American criminals who robbed and killed people during the Depression — and into myth. They loom so large they’re now a narrative archetype, like Sisyphus, or Romeo and Juliet. The real Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow died on May 23, 1934, ambushed by law enforcement after four years on the run. Parker was 23; Barrow was 25. The historical details of their story take place during the “Public Enemy Era” (1931-1935), when criminals like John Dillinger and “Pretty Boy” Floyd captured the imaginations of Americans and became celebrities and, in some cases, folk heroes. Songs were sung. Legends were born. But the legend of Bonnie and Clyde transcends them all. Something about the story, the trope with the couple on a murderous, exhilarating run, has beckoned to a murderer’s row of filmmakers and storytellers, inviting them to put their own spin on it and re-read the story for their own time. Musicians have told and retold the story, too, from folk ballads and country songs to a line of songs from Tupac, Eminem, and Jay-Z. And like all good legends, the retellings interlock with one another. In 1967, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway starred in Arthur Penn’s “Bonnie and Clyde,” widely considered a watershed moment in American film history, significant and influential for its use of sex and violence. Its protagonists are seductive and exciting, anti-heroes to the last. Young people loved it and claimed it as a rallying cry for the counterculture, even as it seemed less than convinced that individuals can really exercise freedom against the constraints of society. Penn’s protégé, Terrence Malick, turned to the trope for his first film, “Badlands,” in 1973, which stars Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek. He was inspired by a different criminal pair: Charles Starkweather and Caril Ann Fugate, whose two-month spree in 1957 and 1958 resulted in eleven bloody deaths in the midwest. But while the details of Starkweather and Fugate’s spree are different, the arc remains the same: young lovers in the middle of the country on a bloody road trip that can only really have one ending. Where Penn’s film is operatic and alluring, Malick’s is stark and cruel. It was a sensation. In the credits, Malick thanks Penn. In 1974, Robert Altman took a crack at the archetype, casting Keith Carradine and Shelley Duvall in a story based on Edward Anderson’s novel by the same name. (Nicholas Ray made a film based on the novel as well, the 1949 “They Live By Night,” which is often considered a forerunner to “Bonnie & Clyde.”) In a typical Altman take, “Thieves Like Us” meanders across its Southern backdrop, lending a deep sense of lethargy and longing to the trope. “‘Bonnie and Clyde’ were anti-heroes, but this gang of Altman’s has no heroism at all,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review. “Just a kind of plodding simplicity, punctuated by some of them with violence, and by the boy with a kind of wondering love.”

3. “Cloverfield” and the Long Lost Art of the Cinematic Tease.
In 2008, director Matt Reeves and producer J.J. Abrams released a found-footage disaster film called “Cloverfield” after months of an interactive, involving marketing campaign; eight years later, and a spiritual sequel enters theaters with little to no marketing and Internet awareness. Abrams approaches his films as building a mystery box, something shrouded in secrecy only to be shown when the lights go down. In light of the release of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” Telegraph’s Robbie Collin argues that in the age of the Internet, film’s last great surprise is the cinematic tease.

Many of the “10 Cloverfield Lane” tricks are standard practice at Abrams’ production company, Bad Robot – which is located in a Santa Monica warehouse identified only as The National Typewriter Company. Dark red scripts were used during the making of “Star Trek Into Darkness” and “The Force Awakens,” and prompted Anthony Daniels, AKA C-3PO, to compare Abrams’ operation to the Kremlin. Abrams hand-picked “10 Cloverfield Lane’s” 34-year-old first-time director, Dan Trachtenberg, in part because of his work on the advertising campaign for Guillermo del Toro’s “Hellboy II: The Golden Army,” for which he made a series of spoof orientation cine-reels for a classified troll-suppression initiative called Panatrog. The videos popped up online three months before the film’s release, and enticed fans into the unique world of the film without revealing a single frame of it. (Panatrog isn’t even mentioned in “Hellboy II’s” script.) Speaking on the phone from New York, Trachtenberg rued the current craze for “teasers for trailers for trailers” and tell-all campaigns, and reminisced about a very different kind of advert he saw in the cinema in the summer of 1993. In it, a miner chipped away at a tunnel wall before removing a grapefruit-sized rock, which was then split open to reveal a glassy golden substance with a mosquito entombed inside. It was the first trailer for “Jurassic Park,” with zero footage from the film: just the specially shot mining scene and a voiceover that promised for the first time, man and dinosaur would share the earth. “It told me so little, and I had to know more,” says Trachtenberg, who was 12 years old when Spielberg’s film was released. When he finally saw it, he remembers being “so much more excited” than if he’d “known every bit of detail and every special effect before going in.” Did he feel Abrams’ teaser tactics piled on extra pressure to deliver on what was, after all, a low-budget first feature? He demurs. “The pressure works both ways,” he says. “If you go with a heavy-duty campaign, it fuels an expectation that the film has to be better than all the parts you’ve seen so far.” When it comes to recent studio campaigns, those parts can amount to a lot – sometimes more than the studios themselves realise. During Sony’s 2012 promotional blitzkrieg for “The Amazing Spider-Man,” Louis Plamondon, a Canadian HR manager and film enthusiast, was able to cut together a 25-minute version of the movie, including every major character development, action sequence, and even its ending, entirely from material released in clips and trailers. The day he posted the video, Sony released seven more behind-the-scenes featurettes that would have allowed him to add another 15 minutes of footage to his trailer-made reconstruction. Fittingly, Plamondon even released a trailer for it. “If you think you’ve seen it all,” ran the tagline, “that’s because you actually did.” Insane as this seems, on blockbusters, it’s more or less routine. “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’s” “secret” antagonist, the Kryptonian hell-beast Doomsday, was unveiled in a trailer back in December, along with Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. Shortly after last week’s premiere of the first trailer for the all-women Ghostbusters reboot, a making-of video was released taking us behind the scenes of scenes we hadn’t even seen yet. When marketing “Prometheus,” Fox built up to the release of the first trailer with three (!) 30-second teasers, released on four consecutive days almost six months before the film itself.

4. How the Success of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” Makes a Misunderstood Sondheim Masterpiece Relevant Again.
The CW show “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” has garnered much acclaim from the critical community for its musical numbers and its trenchant explorations of mental illness and the darker sides of otherwise bubbly characters. Flavorwire’s Juan Barquin explores how the success of “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” makes Stephen Sondheim’s misunderstood “Passion” relevant again.

When I watched the Zoetic Stage production of “Passion” in Miami last month, the show proved to be as abrasive as ever — characters are depicted as rash and manipulative, and the show is less about love than the outlandish idea of it — but the audience sat in rapt silence until the closing applause. It was a pleasant surprise that no one accused Fosca of being “crazy” during or after the performance. This inspired a question: Why do audiences of the past and audiences of the present receive this tragic woman differently? “’Unhappiness can be seductive.’ / ‘You pitied me.’ / ‘How quickly pity leads to love.'” These words, sung between the two lovers Giorgio and Clara at the opening of the show, seem innocuous at first, but neatly state the theme of the story that ensues. Fosca, Giorgio, and Clara are all flawed individuals, each revealing their thoughts and feelings to the others with a forwardness many might find off-putting. They speak of disgust, of pity, of beauty, of love, of all things that reveal the folly of mankind, and often act foolishly in the heat of the moment. As Sondheim says, this strikes audiences as ridiculous. Witnessing “Passion” in 2016, one work of art kept popping into my head: The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” The Golden Globe-winning musical comedy series rang in my ear as “Passion” unfolded before me, unexpectedly deepening my understanding of Fosca. The series mirrors “Passion” in a fascinating way, both thematically and narratively. Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom), too, is a complex mentally ill character whose unhappiness in life has her moving across the country to be with the man she’s hopelessly, desperately in love with — who is, to her displeasure, already committed to a beautiful woman. She constantly manipulates her love interest, Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III), as well as those around him, in order to grow closer to him and make him love her. But Bloom, “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s” co-creator as well as its star, isn’t getting, “Die, Rebecca! Die!” as a primary response. On a surface level, it’s difficult to understand why, considering the abundant similarities between the two works. “Passion” makes no attempt at hiding the deplorability of its characters, particularly Fosca, but neither does “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” In an interview with the Vulture TV Podcast, Bloom said, “This is a show about someone who’s made a bad decision, and is in many ways a bubbly antihero. We’re taking happy tropes of songs and exploring a darker side to them.” For all the show’s pep and jokiness, much of Rebecca’s behavior — and, by extension, that of her enabling confidant Paula (Donna Lynne Champlin), who edges her and Josh closer together in much the same way as Fosca’s doctor does with Giorgio in her time of need — should be considered reprehensible. Just as Fosca forces herself into Giorgio’s life by potentially feigning or overdramatizing her illness and luring him into situations that will bring her close to him, Rebecca Bunch exploits her loneliness and newcomer status to force herself into Josh’s friend group. Unlike Fosca, Rebecca is in denial about her circumstances, her behavior, and her love for Josh (“I didn’t move here for Josh, I just needed a change”). She lives under the pretense that she is a good person (as explored in the song “I’m a Good Person”), even though she knows she’s making unsavory decisions. Fosca, meanwhile, is honest in her intentions and thoroughly aware of her relentless feelings for Giorgio: “Loving you is not a choice; it’s who I am.” The similarities between the stories now even extend to the “other woman,” with Josh’s girlfriend Valencia (Gabrielle Ruiz) presented in a similar light to Clara in the most recent episode. Where Bloom previously faltered was in not treating Valencia with consistency, making her a shallow mean girl and saddling her with amusing solo tunes (“I’m So Good at Yoga” and “Women Gotta Stick Together”) that offered no insight into her character. It was only in this week’s episode, “Josh Is Going to Hawaii!” that Valencia’s willingness to understand Josh’s feelings and work at their relationship became visible, accompanied by Rebecca’s realization that she is “the villain in [her] own story.”

5. Directors With/Vs. Subject: A True/False Festival Dispatch.
The True/False Film Festival held in Columbia, Missouri showcases cutting-edge documentary filmmaking and the malleability of the form. Filmmaker Magazine’s Vadim Rizov writes his first dispatch from the festival focusing on “documentaries [that] do — or antagonistically don’t — try to serve as compassionate ambassadors to the world on behalf of their subjects.”

Unambiguous Sympathy: Christopher LaMarca and Jessica Dimmock’s “The Pearl”is a nighttime movie, all quiet, warmly illuminated interior spaces populated by a self-supporting community. I’m exaggerating a bit — it’s not a movie actually literally set only in the dark (like Nikolaus Geyrhalter’s “Abendland”) — but “The Pearl,” subjectively, is a bit of a safe space. That fits and supports the subjects: four middle-aged trans women, one of whom runs a communal living space out of a spare bedroom (“Amy’s Outhouse”), all of whom need time and low-key support. While “The Pearl’s” narrative includes transitional arcs for all its characters, much of the conflict and difficulty of transition is discussed but not shown. Nina, formerly Reinhardt, is shown returning to her wife after time away, changing into masculine attire in the car before driving home (“Back to Clark Kent,” she cracks); her spouse is never shown, even though Nina conceals her gender identity from a partner of 40 years she fears would be unjustly hurt. Any scenes of friction with the outside world have similarly been (almost) completely excised. Refusing to give ear to transphobic voices, “The Pearl” thus normalizes its subjects’ everyday lives. Discussions between the women re: sexual ideology and what it means to present yourself as “feminine” can be prickly — in voiceover, one questions what she characterizes as another woman’s yoking of feminine identity to stereotypical housewife status — but are still conducted within a realm of unambiguous solidarity. If seen, contact with the outside world goes well (Nina’s first trip to Victoria’s Secret lends uncharacteristic joy to the lingerie franchise) or is only discussed. This is a conscious choice which helps plug viewers into a quieter realm of identification. What stayed with me the most was the film’s capturing of specific spaces: Amy’s golden-lit house at night, an fluorescently underlit pizza parlor where Nina works, the perpetually illuminated garage where two trans siblings worked alongside each other for years, unaware they shared the same status. Floating from location to location without definitively marking the passage of time, “The Pearl” floats from liminal space to space — a fitting match for its subjects.

Clear-Eyed-But-Nobody’s-Off-The-Hook Sympathy: “What’s the deal with that guy?” someone asked me, puzzled after watching Roberto Minervini’s “The Other Side.” To give a quick answer, I turned to my interview with the director from last year. Explaining his intentions for this portrait of down-and-out life in the left-for-dead community of West Monroe, Louisiana — the first half profiles dispossessed heroin addicts Mark Kelley and Lisa Allen, the second breaks off to follow a militia during training — the Italian-born Minervini emphasized compassionate identification with subjects whose behavior spirals from merely disturbing to the outright terrifying. “I’ve already approached the topics of pain and fear, and I needed to dig into the sociopolitical causes of it,” he said. “It was time for me as an American filmmaker, living and working in America, to look for the responsibility at an institutional level. The fact that people need to find a shield in violence and drugs, behind weapons — no matter if they are syringes, AR-15s or assault rifles — the fact that people feel the need to protect themselves in America is something that’s not only anachronistic but it’s brutal.” Some fairly obvious answers about economic stratification, institutionalized venality et al. suggest themselves, none of which are explicitly fingered. These are bands of outsiders intensely loyal to family and friends, convinced the [insert Tarantino’s favorite epithet] in the White House is responsible for their lot in life; such casual racism regularly punctures Mark’s otherwise genial surface. Acutely aware of who he is, cracking wise about his narcotic habits, Mark looks out for relations even broker than he is, even if the most he can do is hook up his sister with heroin for free. One scene raises the specter of institutional neglect: Mark tells his girlfriend that after his mother dies, he’ll turn himself in for a crime whose three-month sentence he ran out on. Why? So that he can finally get clean, something he simply can’t do otherwise. What kind of society ensures its poorest can only get adequate drug treatment if they offer themselves up for harvesting by the prison-industrial complex? The militia is headed by veterans convinced it’s only a matter of time before martial law ships us all off to the FEMA concentration camps. (Alex Jones and his ilk bear considerable moral responsibility for poisoning the already-paranoid’s minds with this toxic nonsense, which obscures our bought-and-paid-for legislature’s destructive actions, even though they’re in plain public view.) The sight of angry men with itchy trigger fingers just waiting for a chance to shoot somebody — to defend their family and a very nebulously understood Constitution — is depressingly unsurprising but illuminating in its specifics. Again, they are people who mean well: in one scene, a militia leader correctly diagnoses our foreign policy as a repeated matter of imposing ourselves upon other nations with no regard for the consequences, before making an illogical leap to conspiratorial terrain: if it happens abroad, it’s only a matter of time before it happens at home. When accurately perceiving their government just doesn’t care about them, people can go crazy. The final image — a shot-/blown-up car spray-painted with anti-Obama rhetoric in flames, with somebody whooping “America!” — isn’t subtle, but it’s a real thing that happened and a key starting image for understanding Trump’s Vision, or what he pretends to believe anyway. The film is beautifully shot (by Diego Suarez-Llanos) and richly experiential, and more shattering for both those traits.

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