Movies That Show Us Ourselves

There’s a type of movie I particularly like. By its construction, such a movie helps bring forward what’s required from you to complete it. You give it its definition; that, to me, is a real viewing experience—to personalize it and make it your own, meanings as various as the numbers of people who create them.

It’s easy to identify such a picture by its reviews, which are always in marvelous disagreement as to what the picture is fundamentally about. These movies differ from the straight story types in the same way teaching styles are dissimilar, the didactic method (you’re told or shown what the point is and you learn it; the fair-minded goodness of Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird is an artful example) versus the socratic (you’re led to discover the point on your own). The discovery may just happen to be about yourself, because your interpretation of the movie shows something that you may not have been conscious of. I have four of these “socratic” movies in mind as examples, Agnes of God; All Is Lost and Life of Pi; and last year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Birdman, all movies that introduced me to myself more fully, the first exposing a core spiritual value system, the next two the strength of a spiritual belief, the last the depth of my perception. The films cover quite a span of years, paralleling stages of personal development I had to go through to be ready for them.

Agnes of God (1985)

This was the first that made me aware of the type of movie I describe. In it, a newborn is found strangled and disposed of in the room of a young nun, Sister Agnes. She’s the mother of the child, though the Mother Superior says Agnes has no memory of the conception or pregnancy. A court-appointed psychiatrist investigates, trying to determine if the nun is mentally capable of standing trial. Uncovering how psychologically troubled Agnes is, the psychiatrist proceeds in building a case for homicide, while the Mother Superior defends her innocence as a girl manifesting a miracle of God, the most convincing result of which are her stigmata. The clash between the two demands that you, the viewer, resolve the conflict, because the movie never confirms guilt or innocence. Your judgment of whether Agnes is touched by God or by madness solves the mystery and at the same time reveals your sense of values, faith or reason.

For me, it’s reason, which turned out to be an important finding for my future spiritual quest. I began to know then that matters of God must make rational sense to me before I can have faith. Faith for me is determined first by the mind, then the heart. If you question your own subterranean bias, watch this movie and I guarantee your natural response to it will provide the answer.

All Is Lost (2013) and Life of Pi (2012)

I was so affected by All Is Lost, I published a blog shortly after I’d seen it, “All Is Not Lost.” I’d been interested initially because Robert Redford was the star—and furthermore the only on-screen character—and I am a fan. But it unfolded to be vastly more than just a Redford vehicle, and, for the sake of the viewers surrounding me in the theater, I had to stifle the sobs that welled up in my chest because of the final scene, a compelling moment which some viewers would see as proof of God’s salvation.

I was astonished by my own reaction, for I’d not realized how powerfully my God-seeking journey had taken hold until I was faced with deciding the movie’s meaning. A secularist would experience the story as an adventure tale of a man lost at sea, all events and circumstances taken literally at the level of reality only; a spiritualist, which my surprise reaction determined me to be, would take it metaphorically as a soul’s journey, the movie’s rich setting full of symbology and hints at a religious thrust.

The other movie, Life of Pi, presents the same form of interpretive choice. At the end of Pi’s story, however, the selection the viewer has to make as to meaning is made explicit. In contrast to Our Man (Redford) in All Is Lost, where a religious theme coexists implicitly with an overtly secular one, the adult Pi tells two versions of his earlier adventure at sea as a boy, mystical and pragmatic, and then finally asks directly, Which do you believe? The voyage of his soul, sailing in surrender to the vast unknown with his only companion, a God-like Bengal tiger whom Pi loved and feared in equal measure? Or the voyage of his raft? I sobbed all the way home from that film, too, moved beyond words by Pi’s spiritual experience, he a novice seeker so like myself at the time.

Birdman (2014)

This movie posed the toughest revelation, my ability to see. The full title of it is Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). The subtitle (and veiled by parentheses yet!) should have been a tip-off that the movie was going to be enlightening if I could let it be; for, let’s face it, the only unexpected “virtue” of being ignorant is when you’re not anymore. Yet I couldn’t discern the movie’s real point at first, and I left the theater afterward feeling disappointed by a skimpy black comedy about actors’ pretensions. The movie had had a big promotion budget and therefore lots of pre-release buzz about its Oscar quality. But I felt cheated by the predictable story of a washed-up movie actor’s egomaniacal attempt at career redemption. However, Birdman kept pecking at my thinking, patiently dwindling my ignorance. Finally I got it because I saw this clue: the play-within-the-movie was named “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Well, what do we talk about?

That play is the platform that has-been Hollywood actor Riggan Thomson uses to get audiences to adore him again as they did back in his glory days of playing movie superhero Birdman. And there the Birdman still is, in fact, dogging Riggan, reminding him of what used to be, driving him to (at worst) insanity, to (at best) insensitive dismissal of all else but scrambling to the top again. Birdman even whisks him away on fantasy flights high above Broadway, metaphors for Riggan’s obsessive lust for celebrity—that famous stand-in for love—again. By the end, and after a dramatic ironic reversal of Riggan’s rotten comeback luck, Birdman’s left squatting in the bathroom (a darkly humorous symbol for how the past can block and constipate a life) and Riggan is surrounded by the ones who had loved him—really loved him—all along, his daughter, his ex-wife, his longtime agent. Recognizing this at last (not ignorant anymore), Riggan takes off in joyful flight on his own. What we talk about when we talk about love, therefore, is up to us, the genuine, accepting love which is offered right before us, or the fickle, superficial, people-pleasing variety.

Now that’s a meaningful flick. But, with Birdman, it’s up to the viewer to know it, to explore beneath the obvious story line about the conceits and self-involvement of the entertainment industry (movies and the “legitimate”—read “Broadway, New York City”—theater). See it (or see it again), and test your depth perception. Because of my life experience, I found my level of sense; you may find another one, filtering even farther below the story’s surface.

That is the glory of the capital-A Arts. Through the extent of understanding of individual recipients, the significance of works of art is determined. Which, in turn, helps to tell us who we are.

Couch Session: Award-Winning Writer Marc Rosenberg Talks ‘Elevator’ And More

Just the other day I got to talk with director Stig Svendsen on the indie thriller Elevator. Now, continuing with that coverage, I’ve had the opportunity to interview Marc Rosenberg. Marc is the writer and producer of Elevator. We got a chance to talk about the film and his relationship with Stig. As well, Marc talked about his influences, future projects and whether or not he ever plans to become that triple-threat guy by taking a seat in the director’s chair. You can read the full interview below.

JL: In a script like this, there appears to be a lot of subtext, both social and political commentary. What sort of message or point are you trying to convey through this?

MR: I wish there was something deep and meaningful I could say, but really my main concern was creating an entertaining movie with the budgetary and logistical challenges we had. I do read the news and I have life experience, so that inadvertently becomes my resource material.

JL: How was working with Stig Svendsen? How do you feel he did in contributing to convey your story and message on the screen as you intended in your writing?

MR: The only way a writer can hope to convey a message, if there is one, is to find a director that has similar reference points and is open minded. I could never make Stig tell my story without it being his story. While writers hate to hear this, film is a director’s medium. I always hope the director likes the script enough that he or she will want to know my reasoning and to meld this with their own understanding of the world. If a director changes something in the script, I want to be sure they know the ramifications of that change. They might make it better than I imagined, I always hope they can. Stig and I like similar movies and that became the basis of our working relationship and friendship – that, a sense of humor and a love of drink. Stig did an amazing job – we captured ‘lightning in a bottle’.

JL: You mention you and Stig share a similar taste in movies. What are some of your favorite movies? If you’re anything like me your Top 5 change on a regular basis and it’s too hard to narrow it down like that anyways. However, just off the top of your head what are some that you’ve really enjoyed?

MR: Both Stig and I love stylish films, films with a lot of panache. I think he’s more open-minded than me. We love “Psycho,” the way it’s edited, the boldness of it and Polanski’s “The Tenant,” the way he combines humor with horror. More recently, I was taken by “Two Lovers” as a beautiful and powerful character piece, I loved Mike Lee’s “Happy Go Lucky” as something totally refreshing and charming, and “The Visitor” appealed to me. I like intelligent movies. I don’t go to the cinema as much as I used to, and arrogantly, I pretty much feel I’ve seen “everything,” and there’s not much that will surprise me anymore. I walked out of “Transformers,” which surprised me until I found myself walking out of “Sherlock Holmes,” too. The “knee-jerk” films don’t entertain me; they’re soul-less.

JL: Well, with so many layers and seemingly underlying commentary and such interesting characters, ‘Elevator’ definitely doesn’t seem like it will be falling into the soul-less category. How do you feel the cast did in portraying all the layers of the film being as so much rides on the characters in a movie like this?

MR: I believe the actors we chose, or who chose us, did a spectacular job under fairly grueling conditions. They were asked to spend 12 hours a day in a confined space. They did it for the challenge and were amazing at carving out their individual stories. I was constantly reminded to never underestimate a professional.

JL: How do you approach a project? Do you like to take control? Or do you like to sit back and try to let the director command the project while you are behind him/her for support and the good of the film?

MR: I didn’t used to be a very good cheerleader, but over time I’ve come to see the value in it. I would prefer to be with a strong director, and once I’ve made the choice to work with them, I want to support them in every way I can. I used to nitpick, but it’s pointless and no fun at all. I think, for the most part, all the bitching and moaning that can go on comes from insecurity. I’d like to think I’m past that, I don’t choose to be a victim. If I want more control, as I did on “Elevator,” I produce, and in this case, invest. It doesn’t mean that I always get my way, but people pretend to listen.

JL: Stig Svendsen has said you’re very much one of these producers that are all about the good of the film. How much of this stems from you being a writer? On some level, is it hard for you to take criticism during filming on a project that you’ve vested so much time in as a writer?

MR: I’ve been a writer for 30 years and I’ve worked with the kind of producers you’d never want to work with again. I didn’t want to be that producer, the one that treats creative people like irresponsible children. I’ve always thought the goal of a quality producer is to make the best film possible, and once you’ve chosen your key creative personnel, you have to trust them as professionals to do the job they’ve been hired for. One of the first things I told the production department was my distaste for the boundaries between production and creative. We’re all creative and we all have something to contribute to the final film. If a second AD can make an actor happier, doesn’t that help the film? I believe it worked, we built a trust.

As far as my relationship with Stig goes, he shook me out of my cynicism. In casting, he’d always go to the top. My first thought was, we haven’t got a snowball’s chance in Hell, but then I’d think, “Why not?” If I could see the benefit in anything the crew wanted and we could find a way to pay for it, I’d try to get it. We were all pulling on the same end of the rope.

JL: Being as how I’m sure you have such a vested interest with your screenplays, how does it differ for you being able to serve as producer on a project as well? Being able to have more control over the whole process as opposed to such films as ‘December Boys’ where you have to just sit back and let another director and producer flesh it out on screen.

MR: I was very involved with “December Boys,” because I was friends with the director and I promised not to be a nuisance. Sometimes it doesn’t work out that way and it’s not much fun. On “Elevator” I wanted as much control as I could get. I wanted to sink or swim based on my own efforts. It’s exhilarating and frightening in equal measure. I was very, very lucky to be surrounded by people who were smart and generous. I may be different than most writers, but once I finish a script, I’m not that invested, it’s almost like someone else had written it. I still want the check sent to me.

JL: What’s it like for you watching your writing adapted on screen? I would think on some level, as much time as you put into it, a screenplay becomes something like your baby. How is it watching your baby essentially grow up right before your eyes?

MR: That whole concept of it “being my baby” is foreign to me. I was constantly being asked what it felt like, and to be perfectly honest, it just seems like this cousin that I’ve seen photos of. Perhaps early on in my career I would have been more possessive, but not any more. When I’m writing it, it’s fun and challenging, and I put my heart and soul into it, so perhaps when I’ve finished I’m just spent.

JL: You talk about wanting to have as much control as you could on “Elevator” and how that “sink or swim on your own efforts” is exhilarating for you. With that in mind, have you thought about ever making that final leap and take a seat in the director’s chair as well? Maybe at some point do your own project that you write, produce and direct?

MR: I’m in awe of directors. When I was watching Stig talk about camera angles, deciding on costumes, working out choreography with actors – the confidence you need, it all seems daunting. I did think about directing at one stage, soon after Film School, but I was too influenced by the people around me. I guess that’s why writing appeals to me so much – I can be a closet show-off. I haven’t totally given up the idea of directing but it’s not a burning desire.

JL: Speaking of your writing, I’ve heard that when you and Stig met you let him read several of your screenplays and ‘Elevator’ actually wasn’t his first choice. However, due to budgetary restraints y’all weren’t able to do the one he first chose. What was the original script that Stig was interested in?

MR: The original script was an espionage film set in L.A. and Venezuela. It’s still a possibility, so I don’t want to reveal too much.

JL: Do you have any plans to collaborate with Stig again? Maybe to come back to that script at a later time? How would you feel working with him again?

MR: I’d love to work with Stig again, and we have an idea for Harrison Ford. It’s another big film.

JL: A Harrison Ford movie huh? That’s interesting. Anymore you can tell me on that?

MR: The “Harrison Ford” project is still in the early stages, but deals with a character that makes an unnatural discovery that changes history.

JL: Going back to your and Stig’s decision to work together. As I mentioned, the first script Stig wanted wasn’t possible due to budgetary restraints. This results in having to go a much more low-budget route. It seems more and more like indie films and getting recognition these days. With recent hits like Paranormal Activity and Buried, how do you thinkthis bodes for those very low budget filmmakers? How might it affect the industry that’s so known for being all about money and being more focused on using big names and huge budgets to typically sell movies?

MR: I believe that there will always be spectacle films, big budget films, but if you’re an aspiring film-maker or you want to have more control, you can make high-concept films on a low budget. The market is receptive to indies.

JL: Have you found a distributor for ‘Elevator’ yet?

MR: We don’t have a distributor, and this was by design. When I first pitched the concept to my lawyer, he said he could sell it immediately, but I’d lose control, and that seemed to defeat the whole point of me doing it in the first place.

JL: When might we be seeing Elevator? Any tentative release date? Any ideas to shop it around at any festivals?

MR: I’m trying to formulate a strategy for getting it seen in the most positive way. My first thought is to take it to Cannes. I want to talk to wiser heads and see what they suggest.

JL: Do you have any other scripts in the works or ideas for what you might be doing next?

MR: I have a big budget film in the works called “The Mennyms,” based on a series of books by English author, Sylvia Waugh. The story centers around a family of living dolls fighting to keep their house. Besides that, I’ve always been drawn to the Patricia Highsmith books and would love to adapt one of those. I wasn’t at all happy with the film, “The Talented Mr. Ripley”.

JL: Speaking on the admiration of others’ works, the concept of ‘Elevator’ feels real Hitchcockian and you mention your love for ‘Psycho’, so I’d figure in some ways his films have had an influence on you. What have been some of your biggest influences as a writer?

MR: I read a lot of novels. Patricia Highsmith has been a big influence on me – “The Talented Mr. Ripley,” “The Glass Cell,” “A Dog’s Ransom,” etc. There’s not one of her books I haven’t read. I’m still struggling with the classics that most people read in college – “Anna Karinina,” etc. I am a huge fan of Chekov, and I think his “A Boring Story” is a masterpiece. I like reading novels set in L.A. and get a kick out of recognizing the locations. I really think the secret to being a good writer (or filmmaker) is knowing the terrain, not parodying someone else’s work, but writing from a personal knowledge. Emotional terrain counts, too. If I weren’t a screenwriter, I’d love to write a novel. Most screenwriters turned novelists are pretty average.

JL: “The Mennyms.”. Anymore you can tell me on that? You say that’s in the works, how far in the works are we talking here?

MR: I’ve written about 10 drafts of “The Mennyms”, trying to please producers and directors, and now there’s someone trying to raise the money. If they can’t, I may produce it myself.

JL: Well, I thank you for your time, Marc. It’s been very interesting and a pleasure. I look forward to hearing more about ‘Elevator’ and your future projects.

Movie Talker – To Talk Or Not to Talk

The other day, I was watching a movie in a theater with some friends. It was supposed to be a comedy, but I couldn’t stomach a laugh. If I hadn’t gone with a couple of friends, I would have already been in another theater by this point. Especially a movie like this, one that would have been better to rent than pay a million dollars to see. It’s getting down right expensive to see a movie nowadays. After you factor in the pop, candy, and the price of your ticket, you almost need to take out a second mortgage. Anyway, I’m not really into the movie, and I can’t leave. I start biting my lip because I have a bad habit which drives my friends crazy. All of a sudden, I hear a familiar sound; a guy two rows down has the same condition as myself. My dimples take form for the first time this evening. The guy two rows down is a movie talker.

For those of you who are not familiar with my condition, let me showcase some of our best characteristics. They’re three kinds of movie talkers. Sometimes it is possible for a person to have all three of these traits but usually a movie talker is one of the three.

The first kind of movie talker is what I will call the Good Buddy. Don’t be deceived, this kind of movie talker is definitely not. The Good Buddy likes to talk to the characters on the screen like they are friends. They may say things like, “Don’t go into that room! Someone is waiting on the other side of the door–they’re going to kill you!!” This individual will inadvertently unfold the plot of the movie. It is important to remember that the Good Buddy does not always realize what they are doing. Whether or not the Good Buddy has previously seen the movie, is not necessarily a prerequisite for their movie talking. Unfortunately, whether they are right or wrong regarding the films outcome, does not change the fact that they are still talking during the movie.

The next kind of movie talker might think they have a sixth sense for unravelling a great mystery, but really they are nothing more than someone who points out the already known. I call this movie talker…Captain Obvious. Captain Obvious’ special power only appears in predictable movies. Captain Obvious might say things like, “Did you see that jump?” Which movie do you think we’re watching here captain? Or, “That’s the guy from earlier, remember he was in the background when so and so died.” Although Captain Obvious may seem like a pretty annoying movie talker, there is one more movie talker who is far worse.

The award for the most annoying movie talker goes to…Speechless. Ironically, they are anything but. This movie talker goes on and on, and on, and on like an old warped record. They talk about unrelated subjects during the movie regardless of whether they have seen the movie or not. Speechless may not know why they came to the movie with you in the first place. If you ask them, Speechless will probably say, “I don’t know because you were going.” They may just want to spend time with you and talk out their day, what they saw earlier, or something about the show–that reminded them of something they saw earlier. Speechless will continue to talk oblivious to the fact that you are trying to watch a movie. If you try and ignore them hoping it will send a message for silence, Speechless will continue to talk and even ask if you are paying attention. Speechless is not a bad person which makes them the worst kind of movie talker. They just have an innocence that makes them oblivious to what’s going on around them. If you tell them to shut up because you are watching a movie, then they will almost always get a doughy eyed expression like you just kicked their puppy.

Nowadays, the average movie talker is silenced at home by the technology designed to make our lives easier. We have the aging v.c.r, the everyday d.v.d player, and the newcomer d.v.r. These three devices are prepackaged with a pause, stop, rewind, and fast forward button. Unfortunately, movie theaters do not have such a luxury. Aside from creating a movie theater specifically designed for each of these movie talkers, the only real thing anyone can do is keep suspected movie talkers at home.

Or, is there?

In May of 2007 Regal Entertainment Group unleashed a new device aimed at silencing the movie talker. The hand-held device is issued to select moviegoers with a direct link to management. The four button remote control can alert management of a problem with the picture, poor sound quality, movie talking, or an act of piracy. Although this device was controversial when it was first released, it has paid for itself many times over through the satisfied customers who get a chance to see and hear the movie they’ve paid for.