Paul Cox, auteur of Molokai, RIP

Paul Cox, auteur of Molokai, RIP

The discovery of two versions of There Be Dragons — the original version and a director’s cut — evokes the similar story surrounding Molokai: the story of Father Damien. I was sorry to learn today that Paul Cox, the director of Molokai, died last week.

David Wenham, the star of Molokai and a frequent collaborator with Cox, once said this of the accomplished film-maker:

“There is no one like Cox. He is unique, and we need him, and people like him … he is completely an auteur, because everything you see on the screen, and hear, has got Paul’s fingerprints all over it.”

An auteur, for those who don’t know (I admit: I looked it up), is a film director who influences his films so much that he ranks as their author. That explains the bad blood between Cox and the producers of Molokai, who had divergent visions of the movie. That’s where the similarities with There Be Dragons weigh in. Except, in some ways, this time the roles were reversed. The producers of Molokai (the Belgian Government) wanted something which would attract and wide audience and prove commercially successful; the director’s vision was more art-house. But what really sets Molokai apart from the There Be Dragons with is the acrimony which afflicted director and producers.

Where Joffa was very gracious, Cox didn’t hold back in his criticism:

After Cox cut his version of the film, the producers radically recut it “behind my back” and released it in Belgium with a grand premiere. Cox didn’t attend, but watched on TV. The film bombed. “If you ever saw the producers’ cut you would not believe you were watching the same film,” he says, laughing. “It was not watchable. They had totally slaughtered it.”

After the success of Cox’s multi-award-winning Innocence, the investors of Molokai negotiated with Cox to restore the film to its original form. He agreed on the strict condition that the producers were kept well away. They happily agreed.

With the film finally being released in Australia in its proper version, and re-released in Belgium, Cox is breathing a long-awaited sigh of artistic and emotional relief.

“I’m especially pleased for David’s sake, but it left a big scar on me. I will never, ever trust any producer around me on that level again. I will never, ever make a film where I don’t have final cut. F— the lot of them. This is the big, dreadful shame of modern film-making.”

Despite all those difficulties, Molokai is a great film, depicting the heroic story of a great saint. I’ve blogged about this film before. I would love to find the original Belgian version, just to compare it to the director’s cut. But in this instance, at least, I’m confident the director’s cut is the superior film.

Cox claims the profit-minded producers complained that there were “too many lepers” in his film. So perhaps they cut out one of my favourite scenes in the director’s cut. It is hard to watch, but also very moving. Fr Damien enters a drunken den and vows to clean it up. Its inhabitants respond by thrusting in his face a rotting leper, who plants a disgusting kiss on the priest’s face. Fr Damien reduces the jeering gang to silence when he responds with affection and supernatural love:

I think this scene sums up the entire film. As one reviewer puts it:

There really are just three sorts of stories: man against man, man against nature and man against himself. And the makers of Molokai have told the right one.

Cox’s film is not a story of Damien against the government and his religious superiors, though material abounds. Nor is it a story of Damien against leprosy:

Father Damien improved living conditions there, but he cured no one; he touched them, and they were not healed. But there is a miracle: he touched them. This is the story of a man of God dying to himself, putting aside his all-too-human aversion to a horrible, wasting disease, and seeing Christ in the ruined faces and bodies of his chosen parishioners.

I believe Molokai, like There Be Dragons, was a box-office flop. But don’t let that dissuade you. Molokai has earned a place among the Catholic classics, and I recommend its inclusion in your DVD collection.

Paul Cox, recquiescat in pace.

There Be Dragons: a tale of two (or possibly three) films

There Be Dragons: a tale of two (or possibly three) films

To celebrate St Josemaría’s actual feast day today, I watched There Be Dragons tonight. Well. I thought that’s what I was watching.

It turns out there are two different versions of the movie — a producer’s cut, which was the original cinema release, and a director’s cut, which is subtitled Blood and Country. The director’s cut also goes by another name, Secrets of Passion. I think.

Confused? I am.

The original There Be Dragons is the version preferred by the producers — members of Opus Dei — who had envisaged a biopic of St Josemaría and a dramatisation of the Work’s origins. This version is 120 minutes long. I recall enjoying it very much, although the plot was confusing and sometimes plodding.

Blood and Country or Secrets of Passion is the version preferred by the director — Roland Joffé — who envisaged a romantic epic, set amidst the Spanish Civil War, and focused on the themes of love and forgiveness. This version is only 100 minutes long. I did not enjoy it so much. It may be shorter, but the plot is even more tedious, and it doesn’t help that a new soundtrack drowns out the dialogue.

Those who are interested in how two movies were cut and released can read more from the director’s perspective, and from the editor’s perspective. A perfect illustration of the differences: Blood and Country omits one of my favourite scenes from There Be Dragons. It depicts the radical nature of Opus Dei in the context of 1930s Catholicism:

I can understand why details like this may not be as interesting to a broader audience. Hence the move, in the director’s cut, away from spiritual themes and ecclesial history, and towards unrequited love and revenge. Unfortunately though, both versions of the movie were box-office flops.

The biggest problem lies with the jarring leaps from one time to another time. Both versions of the film contain plots competing for attention. One plot — the more interesting one — is set in the 1930s; the less interesting sub-plot is set in the 1990s. I think the complex convolutions of the Spanish Civil War are confusing enough, without adding a trite 1990s melodrama which only serves to break our concentration and investment.

Still, I did enjoy the original cinema version. I’m now in the market for a DVD of the “St Josemaría cut,” with the original soundtrack and dialogue I can hear. Cue the power of Google . . .

Kangaroos living, dead and undead

Kangaroos living, dead and undead

Last month, in the midst of my blogging interlude, I hit a kangaroo. Or, more precisely, a kangaroo hit me!

I have the photos to prove this version of events. As you can see, my car was damaged on the side. I can assure that I was driving forward, not having mastered the skill of crab-walk driving. So the kangaroo smashed into me, not vice versa:

car-1

I lost my left side mirror

car-2

And I couldn’t open the passenger door

Just a few days later I noted with interest that a dubious-looking kangaroo has been terrorising innocent citizens in Brisbane.

kangaroo-terror

This looks like something straight out of a B-grade Aussie horror movie!

Speaking of B-grade Aussie horror movies, I came across this last week, when I was starting to despair that I would ever get my car back from the smash repairers. After watching this, I was thankful. My brush with Skippy could have been much worse!

Waterborne from Octopod Films on Vimeo.

The Hobbit: the Battle of Five Armies

The Hobbit: the Battle of Five Armies

The final instalment of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit is really a tale of two films. It is the best of Hollywood, and the worst of Middle Earth.

If you want fast-paced visually-stunning all-absorbing entertainment — and who doesn’t like that on occasion? — then The Battle of Five Armies is for you.

But woe to anyone who shares the views Christopher Tolkien espoused in his critique of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:

They eviscerated the book by making it an action movie for young people aged 15 to 25. And it seems that The Hobbit will be the same kind of film.

Is it ever! The titular battle in the Hobbit finale, which serves as the immediate prequel to Fellowship of the Rings, takes over an hour. It’s a lot of fun, but has Jackson really eviscerated Tolkien?

eviscerate (v)  ɪˈvɪsəreɪt/ • To deprive (something) of its essential content.

Sadly, yes.

In the final scene in Tolkien’s novel, Gandalf and Bilbo reflect on their adventures, and Bilbo expresses cynical scepticism. The small hero scoffs at the suggestion that his efforts fulfilled prophecies which preceded him. Gandalf’s reply is a mild reproof:

“And why not? Surely you don’t disbelieve the prophecies just because you helped them come about. You don’t really suppose do you that all your adventures and escapes were managed by mere luck? Just for your sole benefit? You’re a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I’m quite fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world after all.”

In other words, Gandalf is counselling against the solipsism which we should have left behind at the age of two, when we realised that we’re not the centre of the world after all. We’re part of something which transcends us, and which makes us greater. (Bilbo, to his credit, is humbled. “Thank goodness for that.”)

In the movie version, Gandalf’s reproof is radically diminished. Jackson removes all mention of prophecy or providence, and instead the dialogue serves to reveal Gandalf’s knowledge of the magic ring Bilbo thought he had concealed. This is one of the ways, I think, that Jackson has “eviscerated” Tolkien’s larger themes.

On the other hand, Jackson magnifies some of Tolkien’s other themes. The ‘dragon sickness’ which afflicts King Thorin rivals the lust which the One Ring arouses in The Lord of the Rings.

In a similar way, Bilbo’s simplicity and integrity is magnified, so that his heroism rivals that of Frodo and Sam in in The Lord of the Rings.

It could be argued, I think, that Jackson had invested in The Hobbit the sort of epic morality Tolkien may have adopted had he written it after The Lord of the Rings. That’s speculation though. We know what Christopher Tolkien thinks of Jackson’s efforts. Who knows what his father would say?

In any event, The Hobbit finale is an excellent film if you’re looking for harmless entertainment, and a moderately fair film is you’re seeking Tolkienesque wisdom. Only purists, I think, will walk away unsatisfied.

Hollywood’s greatest Christmas movie is a perfect fit for Easter

Hollywood’s greatest Christmas movie is a perfect fit for Easter

Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life is the unassailable Christmas movie classic. No other Christmas film comes close.

After a life of hard work and sacrifice, George Bailey is on the brink of financial ruin. On Christmas Eve, he resolves to kill himself, so God assigns Clarence, a second class angel, to intervene. Clarence “earns his wings” by dissuading George from suicide. He does this by showing George what the world would be like if George had never existed:

Everyone knows the plot, but I’m surprised how many people have never seen the film. It must be testament to the proliferation of parodies and cultural references, that so many know the story, but so few have watched it.

There are nearly as many interpretations of the movie as there are parodies. When it was released, the FBI considered it subversive propaganda; evidence of the Communist infiltration of Hollywood. Director Frank Capra claimed the very opposite: the film was intended to demonstrate not only “the individual’s belief in himself,” but also “combat a modern trend toward atheism.”

I’ve encountered similarly conflicting interpretations among friends I’ve watched it with. Is George Bailey best characterised by noble sacrifice and generosity, or by self-pity and complaint? Is he a saint, or a patsy? I think the complexity of Jimmy Stewart’s character is the movie’s saving grace, and a complement to the sometimes maudlin excesses of the screenplay.

My own opinion is this: George Bailey is a generous man who loves, but he’s also an angry man who hates. His defects are serious, and he sometimes permits those defects to define him. Despite that, he’s one of cinema’s most attractive characters — probably because we see in him our own selves.

It’s a Wonderful Life isn’t really a film about Christmas. It’s a film about George Bailey’s redemption in and through the cross. You could argue that it’s a better fit for Easter.

Nonetheless, if you haven’t seen it, you should watch it nowThis Christmas if possible!

Cinema and evangelisation

Cinema and evangelisation

Blogging occasionally offers unexpected side-benefits. I’ve just watched a full preview of The Identical — a film which won’t be released in US cinemas until September. Who knows when it will hit Australian screens?

All I have to do in return is write a review. Not an advertisement or an endorsement, but an honest review. Sweet!

I’ll write the review some other time. First, I want to consider the marketing of this film. The Identical was described to me as “a Christian film,” which in my mind conjures unfortunate and unwanted associations with Fireproof and Courageous. The production values of those films meet Hollywood-standards, but the acting is mediocre, and the writing is very heavy-handed. I’d call it “excruciating in its preachiness.”

To clarify, Fireproof and Courageous are movies I enjoyed. I would consider showing them in a parish setting. But I wouldn’t show them to secular friends anymore than I would bash them over the head with my bulky Jerusalem Bible, or hand them The Catechism of the Catholic Church as recommended reading.

There’s smarter ways to evangelise secular friends. I’ve often recommended C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters — the book and the radio play — as a user-friendly introduction to supernatural outlook. In the past six months, I’ve given away several copies of Matthew Kelly’s Rediscover Catholicism. And I’ll never forget the life-changing impact St Josemaría Escrivá’s The Way had on me, which is why I’m always ready to share that book with others.

Movies can evangelise too. By that, I mean they can sow seeds. Subtly. In a way foreign to Fireproof and Courageous.

Of course, the danger of subtlety is that the message can become so subtle that it is lost. Don Jon is a case in point. A year ago, I was lauding the film — albeit cautiously. Since then I’ve read enough reviews to know that Don Jon is part of the problem it claimed to critique, and I don’t regret its aborted release in Australia.

The Identical, however, is a much more successful effort at subtle and effective evangelisation. Again, by that I mean it can sow seeds, presenting the Christian faith in a positive light, and engaging in the big issues which faith tackles. Ain’t nobody gonna convert after watching this movie. But they’re not going to sin either, which really is something when you consider the moral sewerage Hollywood retails these days.

The beauty of The Identical is that it meets Hollywood production values and it has a superb cast of recognisable and talented actors and its Christian themes are universal. That’s the genius of Christianity at its best, of course. It speaks to the universal human condition.

Consider this trailer, which is cut for secular audiences.

And then consider this “faith trailer,” promoting exactly the same film:

Both trailers do justice to the film they represent, but they’re a fascinating study in contrasts.

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