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ImageA Review of Obvious Child by R Greg Grooms

 

“Good Morning!" said Bilbo, and he meant it. ..

 "What do you mean?" Gandalf said. "Do you wish me a good morning, or mean that it is a good morning whether I want it or not; or that you feel good this morning; or that it is a morning to be good on?"

 "All of them at once," said Bilbo.

                                                                     -from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit.

 When I was a student-- back in the Dark Ages-- “What do you mean?” was thought to be a good question to ask of a book or a story or a film. The correct answer lay in the intent of the writer or director; what he or she meant by it was what it was all about. It’s an old-fashioned idea that has since been replaced by the belief that there simply isn’t one true meaning in any story, just lots of ever-changing meanings in the hearts and minds of writers, readers, and viewers.

 Now I’m not old-fashioned, but I must admit that I am curious about what inspires writers and directors to create and how this shapes their creations. Gillian Robespierre’s  Obvious Child hasn’t exactly shaken my faith in the intent of the writer, but it has opened my eyes to the many ways in which a film can be seen.

  In an interview this summer she stated quite clearly what she intended for her film: it’s a romantic comedy about “a safe, regrets-free, shame-free abortion.”

 To that end she introduces us to Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), a young New Yorker, who works in a quirky bookstore- Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books-- during the day and does standup comedy in a club at night. One evening, after she delivers a colorful monologue about sex, dirty underpants, farts and parts of her boyfriend’s anatomy, he dumps her, announcing that he’s tired of being the butt of her jokes and that he’s been sleeping with a friend of her’s for a couple of weeks anyway. So Donna gets drunk, hooks up with a stranger-  Max, played by Jake Lacy-- and shortly thereafter learns that she’s pregnant.

The rest of  OC revolves around The Big Question. Not “Will I have an abortion?” The answer to that question is taken for granted. Robespierre quite deliberately has Donna avoid any Juno-esque agonizing about whether or not she should have her baby. No, the question she and her friends struggle with is, “Do I tell Max that I’m pregnant?” OC is meant to be a romantic comedy, and true to form the tension that drives it is whether or not Donna and Max can overcome their differences-- she’s Jewish, he’s “so Christian”; he’s a business major, she couldn’t care less about spreadsheets and profit margins; she’s frightfully childish, he looks like stability incarnate--  and find a path ahead together.

 Why this title? Who’s obviously a child? Donna certainly qualifies. She’s smart and funny, but not so funny as she thinks. Her business-professor Mom’s critique-- “And now you waste that 780 verbal telling jokes about having diarrhea in your pants.”-- fits her like a glove.  She’s funny, but also self-centered, flippant, seemingly incapable of running her own life, much less caring for a baby.  Marian Wright Edelmans’ comment about “the crisis of children having children” captures OC’s dilemma perfectly. Donna isn’t ready to be a mother, despite the fact that she is one.

 And despite answering The Big Question with a “Yes!” she finds herself unable to tell Max until the night before the abortion. He comes to her club and hears in her monologue that she is pregnant with his child and will be having an abortion the next day. The audience in the club and the audience in the theater in which I saw OC, responded to this as if it were the comedic high point of the movie. Lots of laughs, lots of close ups of people in the audience laughing. I wept, and Max left… only to return the next morning, bearing flowers, to go the clinic with Donna and take her home after the procedure. The film ends with them cuddling on her couch with cups of tea, watching Gone With the Wind.

This is Gillian Robespierre’s story just she she intended it to be. But there’s another story behind her story and perhaps despite her intentions, it shines through in her film, too. Donna’s abortion is never spoken of, either by her, her friends, or her mother, without evoking tears and, once, anger. The images from the film that linger in my mind aren’t laughing faces, but Donna in the bath on the morning of her abortion, washing her face over and over; a closeup of her face with tears streaming from her eyes,  just as the abortion begins; Donna sitting silently in the recovery room afterwards, surrounded by lots of pretty, young women like herself, avoiding eye contact with all but one; her dark humor at the club the night before, when a friend tells her just before she goes on stage, “You’re gonna kill it out there tonight,” and she replies, “No. I’ll do that tomorrow.”

Am I suggesting that Ms. Robespierre made a film other than the one she intended? No, not at all, but I am saying that there are truths that cannot be fully obscured by any author’s intentions. You can see them in her film just as you can see them in Paul Simon’s song of the same title from his album The Rhythm of the Saints.

 And in remembering a road sign

 I am remembering a girl when I was young

And we said These songs are true

These days are ours

These tears are free

And hey

The cross is in the ballpark

The cross is in the ballpark

 

We had a lot of fun

We had a lot of money

We had a little son and we thought we'd call him Sonny

Sonny gets married and moves away

Sonny has a baby and bills to pay

Sonny gets sunnier

Day by day by day by day

 

I've been waking up at sunrise

 

I've been following the light across my room

I watch the night receive the room of my day

Some people say the sky is just the sky

But I say

Why deny the obvious child?

 

Why deny the obvious child?

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ImageFailing the Test: a review of Her by Greg Grooms

Back in 1950, when the best computer in the world lacked the power of your old laptop, British mathematician/philosopher Alan Turing anticipated a day in which this would no longer be so. In his paper “Computing Machinery and Intelligence” he asked a question- “Can machines think?”- and proposed a test whereby it might be answered. In the Turing Test a judge may ask any question-- via keyboard-- of two subjects: a human being and a computer. When he is no longer able to tell which answers are human and which are computer-driven, the machine has passed the test.

 It’s tempting to see Spike Jonze’s Her as the latest chapter in the same essay-- after all a relationship between a man and his computer occupies the film’s center stage-- but that would be a mistake, for Jonze really isn’t interested in machines.  He’s interested in persons, or to be more precise, in personal relationships. Her, in his own words, is “about something that I think has maybe always been here, which is our yearning to connect, our need for intimacy, and the things inside us that prevent us from connecting.”

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ImageA Theology of the Imagination: a review of The Life of Pi  by Greg Grooms 

Who is God? 

Ask a secular friend and his/her answers may surprise you. Yes,  it is possible to be secular and a deist. According to Christian Smith,  Director of the Center for the Study of Religion and Society at Notre Dame, most young Americans are. They see God as a mix of divine butler and cosmic therapist: a spirit who “grants you anything you want, but not anything bad” and “is there to guide us, for someone to talk to and help us through our problems.” 

Ask the question, “How do you know who God is?” and the answers may be even more surprising. Most are qualified with an “I feel”, “I think” or “I believe”. It seems we are as uncomfortable with a god who can be known as we are with a god who isn’t content to stay in the shadows. In the words of poet Wallace Stevens, “We say God and the Imagination are one...”

Ang Lee’s beautiful film, The Life of Pi, is ostensibly a film about God. Early in the film, when Pi meets the writer who will chronicle his adventure, he says he wants to tell him a story which  will “make you believe in God.” In the end we hear, not one, but two stories: one is a beautiful, imaginative adventure; the other a grim tale of survival. 


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ImagePortrait of an Artist in Exile: a review of Searching for Sugar Man by Greg Grooms

If you plan to see Searching for Sugar Man, please, stop reading this and watch the film first. Most films, in my opinion, should be viewed without introduction, if at all possible, but none more so than this. Should you ignore my warning, the review may do more than spoil the film’s drama for you; it may color your experience of it.  I still feel guilty for reading Tolkien out loud to my children before they were able to know it firsthand for themselves. One of the many things they must forgive me for.

The safe details: Searching for Sugar Man is a documentary released last year by Swedish director Malik Bendjelloul . It’s had rave reviews at Sundance, Tribeca, and SXSW, won many awards, and been nominated for many more, including an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature. This is a well-made film. But even more important, it tells a good story, or perhaps I should say two good stories.

Here’s where the line between safe and spoiler gets crossed.

The first story is the story of how South Africa changed from a white-dominated police state to an open democracy. To be sure, only a small part of this story is told in SFSM, but for anyone who is an artist first and a historian later, it’s one of the best parts of the story. It’s the story of how art has the power to change what politics often cannot.

I know how this works. In Alabama, where I grew up during the 50s, 60s, and 70s, while our parents were electing George Wallace governor four times, we were listening to Bob Dylan: “How many roads must a man walk down, before they call him a man?” No one quotes George Wallace anymore, not even in Alabama, but I still listen to Dylan.

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ImageHorridly Pretentious: a review of Prometheus  by R. Greg Grooms

Imagine you awake one morning to find yourself trapped in a grade B horror movie. Realizing where you are is easy because all the classic signs are evident, from things that go bump in the night, to scantily clad young women pursued (and worse) by monsters, and lots of really dumb people-- clueless in the face of obvious danger – who act as if they haven’t the sense that God gave geese. Try as you will, you can’t escape; it’s not a nightmare that can be banished merely by waking up.  How many times must you ask, “Who are we? What is our purpose?” before your cheap flick turns into something more?
Welcome to the universe of Prometheus.  
Watching Ridley Scott’s films reminds me of Longfellow’s nursery rhyme:
“There was a little girl,  
            Who had a little curl,
Right in the middle of her forehead.
          When she was good,
           She was very good, indeed,
But when she was bad, she was horrid.”                                                           
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