Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Another Short Review

Tonight's movie, the DaVinci Code. I did not read the book, though Susan read it (and loved it) and she read some of it aloud to me as she went along, and it sounded well-written and engaging. My antipathy toward "spirituality," particularly where a person's fervor finds a violent outlet, will come as a surprise to no one here, and I suppose I might, in light of the subject matter, be expected to give a scathing review. But I was much more inclined to give a fair shake to this movie than, say, Mel Gibson's "The Passion of Christ" (which I refuse to see). After all, this is a story which, at its fundament, purports to call into question--even if it hides behind a protective layer of fictional license--the verity of tenets by which people have found justification for killing each other for centuries. If anything, the story drives home the absurdity of any claim of literal truth about matters which cannot possibly be known, which is a valuable service performed to humanity.

But that's a side show to what comes off the screen, I feel, as a pretty good yarn. I read so many reviews which could find little kind to say about the movie, and after seeing the film I'm surprised both at this assessment and even more at the vehemence with which it was expressed (at least with reviewers not on Rupert Murdoch's payroll). It seems well-crafted and professionally acted, and is paced pretty well. I don't know if the exposition of matters of symbology holds water completely, but there's a fair bit of detail which flashes on screen as the plot unfolds, and the story whisks along. I guess one just has to have a little faith! There is the standard criticism of how much of the book--which it takes one eight hours to read--must be left out of a story which we now have get told in two and a half hours. But that's not the movie's fault, and the condensation seems skillfully enough accomplished (at least to one who doesn't really know what was cut--there's no phantom limb, as it were, conspicuous by its absence). It's not hard to see how a fascination with secret societies and with shadowy rituals and protective encryption follows the story.

The profound part of the story for me is not the proposition that the foundation of the modern church rests nowhere near bedrock. I mean, resurrection? Virgin birth? People navigating to a town by following a star? (try that sometime!) Miracles? Faith healing? Angels? Ghosts? (To say nothing of the Old Testament nuggets like arks and instructive stone tablets from a god and the parting of oceans and so on.) Please. No, what works here for me is the advanced simian aspect of the struggle for status and power, and the mechanisms we use to achieve these ends. Human history, ancient and modern, is all about people with great ambition and rapacious egos who lie and manipulate and distort and persuade--and maneuver themselves to positions of advantage (I believe it was Stephen Pinker in "How the Mind Works" who suggested that from an evolutionary standpoint we are failing if we do not maximize--even with criminal acts, in certain cases--the advantage we might gain from our available resources). Without science, which by its very nature cannot be the source of a single group's lock on power (at least not if it is to remain science), we are bound by our instincts to compete and vie for primacy against rival clans. In the case of humanity, knowledge is power, and church history is very much one of controlling the flow of information, of one group protecting its in-the-know status by force against similar claims of other people. This aspect of human nature is laid pretty nakedly before us.

So whether or not one grants any part of this story a very firm foothold, it's still a story which plays out on a stage which we can all relate to very deeply. It's a story of loyalty and conviction with a bit of detective work thrown in, a story which touches on life and death and on the foundation stones of humanity and civilization. Not a bad way to spend a couple hours.

Grade: B+


Esbee said...

I refuse to read the book and I refuse to see the movie, just because when "everybody" is doing something, I tend to dig in my heels. Add in major marketing campaigns and the deal is sealed.

The girl who also ignored Brokeback Mountain and has still never seen E.T. Or that damn Blair Witch Project.

wunelle said...

Funny, I've never seen any of those either (well, except E.T., which is OK because I was 10 or something).

So I have the anti-populist thing too, which is especially evident in my next, acerbic post... (though it's not the popularity per se, but the sense that mass approval usually only attaches itself to second-rate things).

Jeffy said...

I seem to be in pretty much the same boat as you folks - too many people fawning over a book or movie (or TV show) generally makes me think that the odds are bad that I'm going to like it.

I have the same reaction to critics - if they love something it is unlikely that I will. In that case I think that it isn't so much that the critics have bad taste, but that they have to sit through so much of the same stuff that they tend to love anything different, and often just being different doesn't make something good.

That is why Uncle Wunelle's Movie Review Service is so valuable - I get critiques from someone with taste much like my own, and much more time to sample lots of the available fare.

wunelle said...

Funny about the critics. I also don't tend to pay them much mind, unless they ALL hate something--then I tend to be skeptical that it could possibly be very good (though with this movie, I was surprised that it seemed better than they said it was, at least a little). But I also tend not to be able to rely on their endorsement of a story--I've just found no correlation between critical success and my own tendency to like.

The UWMRS just kind of happened, I guess as a reflexive way to keep a current post on the ol' blog! But I used to write about movies in my journal, and it's a way of helping me figure out what I thought of the show.

matty said...

Uncle Wunelle,

I think I'll have to pick up that book you mentioned about the human mind, though I had never heard of it before. I delighted in the book Da Vinci, as a good quick read and page turner that leaves you on cliffs at the end of every chapter (which are only 5 pages or so each in length). but I haven't seen the movie, will wait for DVD, but not because of any anti-populist sentiment (which is kind of nonsense if it's something you are interested in anyway, so be it if the rest of the world is) but because I already have the story in my head. But how did you like those cinematic aspects of it??? Hanks' acting (or the great, droopy frog Jean Reno), or how the design was in accordance to history and the like? well anyway I once found my way back to Gettysburg by using the North Star...just to let you know. But then again, all roads lead to Gettysburg anyway as long as you know relatively your direction. And I think you should see the Blair Witch but it may be different if not in the theatre. It scared the hell out of me when I saw it.


wunelle said...

Hey, Matty.

Yeah, I'm being silly to reject something BECAUSE someone else likes it. Call it my stubbornly anti-populist streak, or maybe too many lessons learned over the years have hardened the mind a bit.

Cinematically, I thought the movie was very well crafted (as you'd expect from Ron Howard). Paris looks fabulous, naturally, and I think Tom Hanks is phenomenal, even when he's playing a pretty uninteresting guy (movie-wise). I've read criticism that he's wrong for an action part, but it's not an action part for him, even though he's caught up in some heady stuff. He's an academic, and I think he remains true to his character as written, if not to how Jerry Bruckheimer would want him to be.

As for the stars, you can certainly use them to determine a general direction--at a particular moment of a clear night. But that's a long way from, say, finding Elko NV by following a star from 500 miles away. Ain't gonna happen ;-)

We'll see about the Blair Witch Project. I may yet get sucked in!

Anonymous said...

I'll probably see "Davinci Code" next weekend. I usually like religious films (if that's what this is, since I didn't want to read too much about it in your blog entry for fear of spoilers.) I like religious films for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which is that it is, in my estimation, impossible to experience the feeling of a good deus-ex-machina type moment in the real world. Those who claim to have had those experiences are usually of the Carl in "Slingblade" variety of people: off their rockers.

There are four films that have forced me to leave the theater before their conclusion. "Blair Witch Project" is number three.

Alex Random