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Christian for me the transcendental style has more or less meant (reduction alert) the insertion of emotion, transformation, hope....something....that is counter to materialist understanding of the world but nevertheless convincing and seemingly authentic. Because he leans so much on Pickpocket, I've sometimes conflated that with the "sublime" which literary folks will say is tied to sudden onset of overwhelming emotion (Longingus contrasts "persuasion" as the goal of prose and ""transport" as the goal of poetry). That gets messy for me in Schrader because I'm not sure if he means films that depict that in characters or films that produce that in the audience (or both). I didn't necessarily think of the end as transcendent but as we said in Zoom, I had a slightly different feeling about the end, so I could understand how others might affirm it fit those descriptors. 

 

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2 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

"stasis" as a feature of "religious art in every culture" simply isn't true. But I do think that climactic moment of apparent transcendence within the context of the concrete and everyday is definitely a feature of what the Dardennes are doing in each of their films. Which is partially why the climactic scene may feel unsurprising or predictable, a criticism that has been leveled at the film in a few reviews.

One film critic at Cannes in 2019 described these scenes as "boring" and "mundane" in his review, which struck me as saying much more about him than it did about the film.

Thanks for that, Joel. I do think transcendental style is, in large part, about what it's doing to the viewer, especially at the climactic moment (as opposed to a merely formal debate about what we're seeing on-screen), and it was this feeling, not dissimilar to what I felt at the end of First Reformed, that got me thinking about the application of Schrader's ideas to Young Ahmed.

You brought up my response during tonight's Zoom call, so I wanted to pivot and say that I was surprised at the hostility directed toward First Reformed during the call. I suppose the callers weren't representative of the Top 100 voters, who placed the film high on our list. The criticisms of the film during the call didn't, to my surprise, really center on the film's conclusion, which has been the most controversial element I've read about First Reformed. Instead, people on the call seemed more broadly dissatisfied with the overall film. If I could have countered, I'd have said that while I'm not the film's biggest fan, I find it hard to believe that any film with a sequence as arresting as the body-on-body sequence in First Reformed could have generated so much ill will. Sure, it's just one sequence (toward the end), but for me, it will always be the Best Sequence of the year First Reformed was released. I've truly never seen anything like it. The crowd I saw the film with (a D.C. premiere) fell dead quiet during the sequence, and you could hear one woman, trying to whisper to her companion, say during the sequence, "This is so weird." Which struck me then, and still strikes me now, as maybe the highest compliment you could pay First Reformed, whatever you think of the ending.

Along those same lines, Young Ahmed strikes me as another candidate that has been rather quickly dismissed by some here. I realize some of you who dismissed it said specifically that you want to see the film again, and that tonight's discussion helped crystallize some things that could lead to better thoughts about the film down the road. And that's great! That's what our discussions, on the board or on Zoom, are for, right? But I was looking at the clock at various points during our talk tonight, and I thought, more than once, "How interesting that a film so quickly dismissed has spurred an hour-plus of discussion so far." Maybe the length of discussion doesn't mean much, but I, for one, was very edified by tonight's discussion. It was robust and considered. And it was great to hear from Joel! 

To put my cards on the table after that critique, I should say that I'm not entirely on board with Young Ahmed. I think I liked it much more than some of you, but I think that's in large part because I found the ending edifying and hopeful rather than something that might have been filled with dark intentions. Tonight's discussion didn't change my view, although Joel's comment about multiple endings being shot led me to wonder what, exactly, the brothers wanted us to take away from the final moments.

Edited by Christian

"What matters are movies, not awards; experiences, not celebrations; the subjective power of individual critical points of view, not the declamatory compromises of consensus." - Richard Brody, "Godard's Surprise Win Is a Victory for Independent Cinema," The New Yorker

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The body-on-body sequence you're referring to, while executed in an effectively creepy way, just checked the box of Tarkovsky Reference for me (or, at least one of the Tarkovsky references). It just felt to me like he was working through a list, incorporating a sort of Top Ten Ideas from Great Art Films. But by that point I was already somewhat frustrated with the footnotey-ness of the whole affair. I think I've described it before as like reading T.S. Eliot in a study edition filled with annotations.

But for what it's worth — I'm not dismissing First Reformed or Young Ahmed. Not at all. They are entirely worthy of admiration, study, interpretation, and revisitation. I just find that I don't find them as rewarding or as satisfying as other work by those artists (any other Dardenne film, or several Schrader screenplays). I would hope that I don't come across as dismissive of — or, God forbid, hostile toward — either film. 


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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6 hours ago, Christian said:

I was looking at the clock at various points during our talk tonight, and I thought, more than once, "How interesting that a film so quickly dismissed has spurred an hour-plus of discussion so far." Maybe the length of discussion doesn't mean much, but I, for one, was very edified by tonight's discussion. It was robust and considered.

I think what I heard from folks on the call who were less positive on Young Ahmed with the initial viewing was less "dismissal" and more "disappointment," with a desire to contemplate and understand why they felt that disappointment. And while I didn't say this on the call, my first viewing was marked by a bit of disappointment too, a sense of "that's it?" when the film ends, because it's just so short and intense. But my second viewing opened up a lot of the interpretations I have now about the film (and everyone's insights have only added more complexity to those interpretations!). Still, if I had to rank the Dardennes' nine major films, from La Promesse to Young Ahmed, the latter would probably be ranked lowest. The film is both very Dardennean, while also having these anomalous qualities (the farm sequences, the overt depiction of religion, the absence of some key "regulars") that make it stand out to me. I also think it's significant that the brothers won "Best Director" at Cannes; it really is a very well-directed film, even though it's not very ostentatious about its directorial flourishes, and the jury at Cannes recognized that.

FWIW, back to Schrader for a moment, I argue in my PhD dissertation that the Dardennes' distinct cinematic style is what I call "transcendent realism," borrowing from both Bresson (Schrader's transcendental style) and Rossellini (Italian neo-realism) while remaining distinctly Dardennean (or Dardennian).

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On another note, I am definitely using the phrase "flat niceness" about the "secular" state in my PhD dissertation. The observation that the state-run therapies are genuinely good, yet ineffective, strikes me as important—even with caring and compassionate caretakers, there seems to be a limit the secular state comes up against regarding fundamentalism in this film. So now I have to figure out how to properly cite a Zoom call. :) 

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3 hours ago, Joel Mayward said:

On another note, I am definitely using the phrase "flat niceness" about the "secular" state in my PhD dissertation. The observation that the state-run therapies are genuinely good, yet ineffective, strikes me as important—even with caring and compassionate caretakers, there seems to be a limit the secular state comes up against regarding fundamentalism in this film.

But the farm itself is a state-run therapy (in addition to being a working farm, I presume), and isn't it seminal for some of the chipping away of his resistance?  Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, as someone who's worked in settings that receive government grants, but I think it's arguable that the kindness of the folks in juvie contributes to the chipping away as well.  And even in the Dardennes aesthetic, the social worker, psychologist, and philosophy adviser came across as warm, not flat.

Edited by Andrew

To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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10 hours ago, Christian said:

But I was looking at the clock at various points during our talk tonight, and I thought, more than once, "How interesting that a film so quickly dismissed has spurred an hour-plus of discussion so far." Maybe the length of discussion doesn't mean much, but I, for one, was very edified by tonight's discussion. It was robust and considered.

I don't think length of discussion means much in this context. Not a fair comparison probably, but Fox News or CNN can spend 23 1/2 hours a day "discussing" something that they've dismissed or had a knee-jerk/superficial response to. That the discussion was edifying (at least for Christian) probably says more about the participants and their willingness to listen/egnage/articulate than it does about the qualify of the film. I remember back when I was podcasting (or even reviewing more often) that sometimes a bad or mediocre film led to more interesting conversation. Part of that is because flat-out adoration is as static and resistant to genuine conversation as straight up dismissal. (Which, to circle back to mass-media examples, is why our two primary models are the 4 hour monologue of talk radio or the mandated debate of the agonism culture that Tannen describes in The Argument Culture.)

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2 hours ago, Andrew said:

But the farm itself is a state-run therapy (in addition to being a working farm, I presume), and isn't it seminal for some of the chipping away of his resistance?  Maybe this is wishful thinking on my part, as someone who's worked in settings that receive government grants, but I think it's arguable that the kindness of the folks in juvie contributes to the chipping away as well.  And even in the Dardennes aesthetic, the social worker, psychologist, and philosophy adviser came across as warm, not flat.

This is a good point, and I don't mean for the "flat niceness" to be wholly pejorative. But it does seem like they're mostly ineffective on shifting Ahmed's rigid position, yes? Which brings me back to Steven's question on the call last night—how many of the events or relationships leading up to the final "repentance" moment are significant or effective in bringing Ahmed to that turning point? It's really hard to discern, which may be intentional. On the one hand, I can see how the film can be interpreted as being a failure of these systems, that even at their best and most kind-hearted, they can't change religious fundamentalists. On the other hand, I can also see how the film is suggesting a both-and approach, where the dichotomy between "secular" and "religious," or "public" and "private," is blurred or breached (in a good way). In one view, the film is very critical of both "religious" and "secular" spheres in their failure with Ahmed; in the other, the film seems to see genuine goodness in both spheres and has a more hopeful vision.

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I think I was one of the folks who used that term "flat niceness" to describe the Belgian bureaucratic state apparatus. I'm reflecting on some of what I had heard about Belgium and their response to both Coronavirus, post-2008 economic austerity, and Islamic extremism on a podcast I listen to, and squaring that with what the Dardennes show in this film. In both cases, the Dardennes and Anton Jäeger on the podcast, suggest it's it's a both and situation: Belgium has unique problems due to their ambiguous national status and liberal institutions, but at the same time it has given them tools to combat it that I don't see in the USA or UK or Germany or France.

Anyway, the point of my saying it was to highlight it in contrast to Ahmed being upset that they are so "nice"! But I think that it does have a positive effect (so I'm with Andrew on that), and that it slowly nudges him in a way that confrontation would not. There's a sense also of the passage in the New Testament of your goodness and loving your enemies as "heaping burning coals" on them; even though I'm uncomfortable with that imagery, it's relevant I think.


"A director must live with the fact that his work will be called to judgment by someone who has never seen a film of Murnau's." - François Truffaut

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Reviews and essays at Three Brothers Film.

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I have a question about the the "flat niceness." 

Where do we postulate it comes from? 

It seems to me there are two common answers to such a question:

--Belgian (or European, or Western, or Christian) "excetionalism" (which I think simply pushes the question back a level; explaining by naming fallacy), or...

--That it is a product of cultural/political/religious structures that incentivize and normalize such traits. 

If it is the latter (or if we postulate that it is the latter), to what extent is the state apparatus "Christian" in its origins? Is it possible to retain the humanist values historically associated with Christianity but divorce them from the underlying ideology that fed the structures that perpetuated them? Are virtues -- and the energy it takes to enact them -- sustainable individually and corporately without some sort of ideological underpinning. (Some of these questions are/were raised for me by The Unknown Girl as well). 

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Since this is the Dardenne conversation currently in vogue, I thought I'd drop this link here. It's a good price on an increasingly rare DVD of The Son, which is, as far as I know, the only way to see the movie anymore.

https://www.pricepulse.app/the-son_us_4885967


P.S.  I COULD BE WRONG.

 

Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.

 

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