Movies

Aretha Franklin, witness to the Gospel

Deal W. Hudson

May 16, 2019

Amazing Grace is one of the greatest concert movies of all time

In January 1972, Aretha Franklin travelled to Los Angeles to join her good friend Pastor James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir to record a gospel album. That album, entitled Amazing Grace, went on to become the bestselling gospel recording of all time.

Warner Brothers sent director Sydney Pollack to film the recording sessions in the New Bethel Baptist Church with a live audience. At the time, Pollack was a veteran television director but had only a few films to credit. Pollack forgot to use clappers between the songs, creating such difficulty in synchronising the video with the sound that he gave up on finishing it.

In 2007, as Pollack was dying, he gave all the material to producer/composer Alan Elliot. More than a decade later, Amazing Grace, the documentary, has finally been finished and released. The result is a sensation – Amazing Grace deserves to stand beside the greatest concert films of all time, such as Monterrey Pop (1968) and The Last Waltz (1978). What distinguishes Amazing Grace from the rest is the music and the performer: This is not the pop star Aretha of the late 60s; this is the Aretha who grew up singing gospel songs.

When she sings old black gospel songs like Precious Lord, which she sang at Martin Luther King’s funeral, there’s an emotional connection between herself, the choir and the audience that’s both soulful and joyful, the joy of overcoming the pain and sadness of the historic black community in America. For many fans of gospel singing, Aretha’s voice contained a purity that has few precursors and no successors.

By 1972, Aretha had become a revered figure in the black community. Her pop music captured the generation: civil rights, sexual revolution, the decline of the black male and the ascendancy of the black woman. For black women, she has been a rock of stability and a source of inspiration to face the crumbling of black culture. It’s no accident that 1972 was the year the movie Super Fly, an exaltation of black pimps, was released.

But Amazing Grace is a return to her roots, and her performance is breathtaking. Aretha combines perfect musicianship with a modest, almost placid, presence punctuated by flights into the gospel ether. Her eyes are often closed, and when her improvisation starts a layered ascent, her face turns upward reaching the fullness of jubilation. At these moments, you are made to realise this is not another performance for her but an act of her witnessing about Jesus Christ.

Pastor James Cleveland accompanies on the piano with grand bravado, choral director Alexander Hamilton was Dudamel long before Dudamel, and the Southern California Cathedral Choir make a funky entrance that made me want to cheer.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s arts editor

You need to watch this German masterpiece

Deal W. Hudson

February 28, 2019

Never Look Away tells kind of the story that invites superlatives and deserves them. Based upon the life of painter Gerhard Richter, it tells the story of an artist who lives through the Nazi horror and the communist stranglehold, then escapes to West Berlin where, after much trial and error, he earns success and recognition.

This narrative could have descended into kitsch, but Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck makes it entirely convincing. Max Richter’s score is so beautiful in places it nearly overwhelms the visuals, but that is offset by deft touches of Morricone-like dissonance and playfulness.

Never Look Away was released last year in Germany and has just opened in US theatres. At 3 hours and 9 mins, it should feel epic, but it doesn’t: World War II and the Cold War serve as background to a story which becomes more and more personal as it unfolds.

It begins with a teenager, Elizabeth May (Saskia Rosendahl), being taken away by the Nazis because the family doctor reported an episode when Elizabeth sat at the piano at home, completely naked, playing Bach. When asked why, she answered: “Playing a concert for the Führer.” Her younger brother, Curt (Tom Schilling, pictured with Paula Beer), is a young child when he witnesses his beautiful and charismatic sister taken away. Her last words to him are “Never look away”, a dictum which takes him 20 years to understand.

Curt marries Ellie Scheeben (played by Beer), the daughter of a respected doctor who is played by Sebastian Koch. Koch, who starred in Donnersmarck’s 2006 The Lives of Others, convinces as Dr Carl Scheeben, a gynecologist tapped by the Nazis to head the Court of Hereditary Health, making him responsible for choosing who is to be incarcerated, sterilised or killed. Very subtly, Koch allows a crack in his soul to be seen in his reaction to the order – he’s shocked but takes a deep breath and carries it out.

Tom Schilling makes the character of Curt intriguing: this is not just another confused artist, but one who seeks the “truth” in an era of lies. Donnersmarck includes a send-up of performance art that had the audience laughing out loud.

Curt endures much (spoiler alert), including the sight of his father, reduced to serving as a janitor, hanging from a rope. Curt’s talent is supported as long as he sticks to the “Timeless values of the people”, whether Nazi or communist. After escaping to West Germany, he meets an eccentric art professor, skilfully underplayed by Oliver Masucci, who recognises a bottled-up talent in need of some rough handling. Looking at Curt’s initial efforts, he says with near-bluntness: “This is not you.” Stung by the comment, Curt remembers what his sister Elizabeth said – “Never look away” – and then his true talent begins to emerge.

Films that take you into the wilderness with Jesus

Deal W. Hudson

March 14, 2019

It’s hard to understand why any director making a film about Jesus would ignore the face-off with Lucifer. Cecil B DeMille has his mind elsewhere in his 1927 King of Kings. Himself succumbing to carnal temptation, DeMille opens his film with a barely clad Mary Magdalene, now a prostitute in love with Judas. In his Jesus of Nazareth (1997), Franco Zeffirelli, I’m guessing, could not conceive of a suitably Botticelli-like way of depicting the wilderness encounter within his five-and-a-half hour mini-series.

By far the worst wilderness scene is in the King of Kings (1961), directed by Nicholas Ray. Jesus (Jeffrey Hunter) climbs with bloody feet over rocky terrain when Miklós Rózsa’s powerful film score is interrupted by Lucifer’s arrival in the form of a plummy voice-over (Orson Wells). The subsequent dialogue is so clumsy, so literal, so cardboard stiff, I was reminded of teenage actors at my local Catholic school.

As he walks out of the wilderness, Jesus meets John the Baptist (Robert Ryan) sitting with John and Andrew. At the Baptist’s recommendation they stand up and start following Jesus like zombies, no questions asked.

In the much-admired 1964 film, The Gospel According to St Matthew, director Pier Paolo Pasolini is anti-Hollywood. Shooting in black-and-white, Pasolini uses non-actors in a 1st-century setting, using language from the Gospel account. There was no screenplay.

We meet a Jesus (pictured) who is ordinary, even frail; he lacks all charisma. As he prays on his knees in the wilderness, a dark figure approaches from a distance. Jesus stands to meet him, and Satan arrives dressed as a priest. Except for a 20-second trip to the top of the temple and back, there’s no drama in the three temptations; neither face changes expression. Satan walks away, but Pasolini’s panoramic shot of Jesus walking out of the desert is worthy of David Lean.

The best of the wilderness scenes are found in The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) directed by George Stevens. The screenwriting and direction move in a surprising direction. Jesus (Max von Sydow) hears some laughter and a voice from a cave. It’s Satan (Donald Pleasance), whose voice is gentle and coaxing: “Long hard climb?”

Satan tempts Jesus with the voice of a friend trying to offer a favour. Their faces are barely seen against a night sky filled with a large, cratered moon. Satan explains: I can give you this and that, because “life should be easy”. Jesus struggles for a moment but pulls himself away from the edge of the cliff, and Satan goes back to eating his snack.

Satan, after all, should be depicted as having some touch of St Paul’s “angel of light”.

Ken Russell’s ‘The Devils’ is badly misunderstood

Deal W. Hudson

February 7, 2019

Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, recently condemned the New York Times for using a picture of “a nun in habit standing behind a jail-like façade” to accompany a review of Jacques Rivette’s 1966 film La Religieuse (“The Nun”). Based on a novel by Diderot, it depicts the life of a nun who is constantly beaten, tortured and, finally, pressed by a lesbian Mother Superior for sex. Donohue asks, “Now who would concoct such trash?”

Well, Diderot had his reasons, but another writer and film-maker told an equally disturbing story about nuns. Aldous Huxley’s 1952 novel, The Devils of Loudun, was based closely on historical events of 1652 that took place in that city, and in 1971 a Catholic director, Ken Russell, released The Devils, based on that novel. The Devils starred Oliver Reed, in the best performance of his career, as Father Grandier, and Vanessa Redgrave as Sister Jeanne, who convinces us of an almost unimaginable character – an Ursuline Mother Superior with a badly humped back and an erotically obsessive crush on the handsome Grandier.

One aspect of the film now jumps out at me: Loudun was a city with high, impregnable walls that allowed the persecuted Huguenots to live in safety alongside Catholics. In one of the opening scenes, Father Grandier celebrates the walls, created by special dispensation from Louis XIII, as providing both protection from religious persecution and individual freedom.

It’s understandable why Mark Kermode, in his introduction to my Criterion Collection DVD of the movie, calls this Russell’s greatest film, because for the first time he combined his extraordinary visual and musical sensibility “with a solid political underpinning”. Wait? Isn’t this a film about the Catholic Church? Yes and no, because Cardinal Richelieu is merging the power of Church and state while Louis XIII entertains at his decadent court, brilliantly portrayed in the film’s opening scene where a practically naked king arises on stage as Botticelli’s Venus.

I watched The Devils one more time after having just seen Robert Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc (1962), another film based on historical fact – the script is taken directly from the court record of
her trials. St Joan and Father Grandier are each put to death for political, not religious reasons, though churchmen used accusations of heresy to burn them, in spite of knowing these were not true. So it follows, at the moment of Grandier’s burning, the city walls of Loudun explode and come tumbling down. And Grandier’s last words are: “Don’t look at me, look at your city, your city is destroyed, your freedom is destroyed also.”

The orgiastic scenes with lots of female nudity have aroused intense controversy since its appearance, but they are secondary to the plot. Compare those scenes, and the characters central to them, to the figure of Father Grandier. The former are cartoonish and recognised as such by the townspeople who look on. The latter, Grandier, has enjoyed carnal love with women and become secretly married to a woman he loves, but undergoing severe torture will not confess to a heresy he did not commit. He dies a true martyr with a nobility similar to St Joan of Arc.

Those who, in the name of God and decency, have condemned The Devils, have been ill-served by their preoccupation with nakedness and sex. They missed the meaning of Russell’s masterpiece.

The extraordinary power of ‘transcendental’ films

Deal W. Hudson

January 24, 2019

Deal Hudson on the shattering effect of movies that defy our expectations

In 1971, Paul Schrader, a film student at UCLA, published a book called Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer. Although he was only 24 years old, his theory of “transcendental style” – expressed in formal academic language – created a scholarly sensation. He is more famous, however, for writing film scripts that definitely do not use formal language – Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, for example (“You talkin’ to me?”).

Schrader’s “transcendental style” is still influential, however, and now the University of California Press has republished his book with a new 33-page introduction: “Rethinking Transcendental Style”. Its republication is long overdue.

Some years ago, I began watching the masterpieces of world cinema found in various “Top 100” lists to find out why they were so highly praised above my American and British favourites. I was immediately intrigued by the three directors Schrader chose, and particularly by Tokyo Story (Yasujirô Ozu), Diary of a Country Priest (Robert Bresson) and The Passion of Joan of Arc (Carl Theodor Dreyer). Each had a shattering effect on me: an elderly couple visiting their ungrateful children; a French priest, nearing a physical and emotional breakdown, scorned by his parishioners; and the trial and execution of the Maid of Orléans played out on the face of Joan, portrayed luminously by Maria Falconetti.

The stories they told appealed to me, but I knew something more was going on that gave them extraordinary power. These films were not designed to buy a few hours of distraction. It wasn’t until I read Schrader’s book that I realised that they employed a peculiar sort of style – the “transcendental style” discussed by critics and theorists for the past 47 years.

Schrader is bold in this book, a boldness that does not flag in his new introduction. He grew up a Calvinist, in the Christian Reformed Church, which forbad “worldly amusements”, but he makes constant reference to the Mass and Christian iconography to explain what he means: “Transcendental style, like the Mass, transforms experience into a repeatable ritual which can be repeatedly transcended.”

Consider the example of Robert Bresson. What he repeats through his films is “everydayness”, says Schrader. He refuses to feed the ordinary expectations of a moviegoer: beautiful images, a straightforward plotline, including a happy ending, manipulative film scores, charismatic actors (Bresson preferred non-actors), creative camera movement (he shot only at chest-level) and film editing that creates an emotional climax. As Schrader puts it, “Bresson despises what the moviegoer likes best.”

Bresson’s austerity creates a “disparity” for the viewers, frustrating whatever natural emotional responses an audience brings to a film. His everydayness is “unfeeling”. Transcendental style postpones emotional reactions, creating “a need, although not a place, for emotion”.

The release of emotion comes at what Schrader calls the “decisive action”, such as the martyrdom sequence in Bresson’s The Trial of Joan of Arc, represented by the image of the charred stake after a shot of a flying dove and the sound of three bells ringing.

The decisive moment is followed by “stasis”. The shot of the charred stake becomes an icon. After an hour of “inexpressive faces and cold environment”, the viewer reaches stasis in a “spiritual expression of Joan’s martyrdom”. This is the point at which we can accept the disparity of being faced not by a typical moviegoer’s experience but an “an expression of the transcendent”. I find this convincing – though not exhaustive, because meeting the transcendent can never be fully described.

In the new introduction, Schrader explains the origins of “slow cinema” with its use of the “time-image” rather than the “movement-image” – concepts taken from French philosopher Gilles Deleuze.

Anyone who has tried watching, successfully or not, the films of Béla Tarr or Andrei Tarkovsky has encountered this slow cinema. “They all have the same purpose: to retard time,” writes Schrader. Tarr’s Sátántangó, a drama about scheming Hungarian villagers, runs to more than seven hours, asking the viewer to become part of the film and create “meaning where none exists”.

Schrader admits that slow cinema has a small audience and fewer enthusiasts. I have found the films of Tarkovsky draw me in, while Tarr’s are a bridge too far. But Schrader’s book remains authoritative and should be read carefully by anyone interested in the spirituality of many great movies.

Schrader’s own First Reformed contains aspects of the transcendental style – flat-toned dialogue, expressionless faces, sparse interiors and exteriors, all creating disparity. A decisive moment is followed by a powerful iconic image of stasis at its conclusion. The film contains clear references to Thomas Merton, Flannery O’Connor, and the country priest of George Bernanos and Robert Bresson, while taking Ingmar Bergman’s risk of the voice-over and dialogue addressing philosophical and theological questions. Schrader has made a profound and moving film, transcendental but with some, minor, accommodations to audience expectation.

Paul Schrader belongs to the select group of directors he names who are working with the transcendental style, such as Eugène Green, Pawel Pawlikowski, Carlos Reygada and Jessica Hausner. First Reformed, in my view, is something of a miracle in the wasteland of sequels, action heroes and saccharine romance films.

Deal W Hudson is the Arts Editor of the Catholic Herald (US edition)

Church and Culture – December 1, 2018 – Hour 1 – Actor, producer, director, Nicole Abisinio talks about her conversion and her upcoming film about the Shroud of Turin