The other day I watched Shun Li and the Poet, a film about a Chinese woman working in northern Italy who befriends a fisherman who emigrated there from Yugoslavia thirty years ago. Neither of these characters are given much explicit backstory. We know that Shun Li’s father was a fisherman and we know that Bepi, the fisherman, has a son and two grandchildren. The setting itself features prominently in the film, as you can see from the screenshots below.
The wide lenses used for the film allow us to see the setting provided for the characters. This, combined with the haze that always permeates the island-town of Chioggia, gives us some striking backgrounds.
This is the shot that appears on the poster for the film. Shun Li is walking to work, wearing the high green wellies that every inhabitant of the island owns and carrying her bright red umbrella. Usually, Shun Li is somber and reserved. Not in this scene. She splashes around happily, taking delight in all the little idiosyncrasies of the town.
There are many great shots of the sea in the film, or rather, of the lagoon. Especially when the mist presses right up against the water, the lagoon has a extraterrestrial look to it. I chose this shot because Coppe’s red sweater provides a nice contrast to the smooth, grey water around him.
This shot is one of my favorites in the film, even though it’s not as pretty as the others. Shun Li is warned by her supervisors that she must stop spending time with Bepi, because the locals are beginning to gossip and it will reflect badly on the Chinese. The camera moves forward and around the table until it faces Shun Li as she sits bracketed by the two men. Mirrors appear in a lot of the scenes in the movie. In this one, the mirror on the back wall shows Shun Li small and inconsequential while the two men loom in the shadows.
The haze in the atmosphere gives all the outdoor scenes a certain tactility or three-dimensionality. There are other shots in this scene that give a better angle of the beautiful buildings in the background, but this close-up gives us a look into Shun Li’s eyes as she receives some bad news and then pulls up the hood of her coat around her face. It is an understated reaction in an understated film.
I watched All Is Lost on Saturday night. As I explained in my post on the movie’s cinematography, the story is about a man sailing alone across the Indian Ocean who runs into a jettisoned (accidentally, we assume) shipping container. The collision breaks a hole in the side of his boat and the rest of the movie shows his increasingly frustrated efforts to survive.
All Is Lost is one of the best movies I have seen in a long time. Robert Redford, who plays the only character, has almost no lines, but his silence brings attention to everything he does, including what he looks at or doesn’t. The film never explains why Redford’s character is floating alone in the middle of the Indian Ocean. A short voiceover at the beginning of the film hints that he strongly regrets something, but we’re not sure what. We find out towards the end of the movie that those regrets are only voiced after his boat has been damaged and he’s completely helpless. It constitutes a confession of some kind, and only after this repentance is Redford “consumed” by fire and the story ends.
All Is Lost is a deceptively simple story. I suspect that it may be more theologically rich than many reviewers seemed to think – how can the story of a man alone on the ocean not be theological? Below are several quotations from Scripture that occurred to me while I was watching the movie. They roughly correspond to the narrative arc of the story.
But Jonah arose to flee to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord. He went down to Joppa, and found a ship going to Tarshish; so he paid the fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshish from the presence of the Lord.
But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.
“…Bind this line of scarlet cord in the window through which you let us down…”
Now the Lord had prepared a great fish to swallow Jonah. And Jonah was in the belly of the fish three days and three nights.
Where can I go from Your Spirit?
Or where can I flee from Your presence?
If I ascend into heaven, You are there;
If I make my bed in hell, behold, You are there.
If I take the wings of the morning,
And dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
Even there Your hand shall lead me,
And Your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall fall on me,”
Even the night shall be light about me;
Indeed, the darkness shall not hide from You,
But the night shines as the day;
The darkness and the light are both alike to You.
For my iniquities have gone over my head; like a heavy burden they are too heavy for me.
Out of the depths I have cried to You, O Lord…
And the priest shall burn all on the altar as a burnt sacrifice, an offering made by fire, a sweet aroma to the Lord.
“For I,” says the Lord, “will be a wall of fire all around her, and I will be the glory in her midst.”
All Is Lost, directed by JC Chandor, stars Robert Redford as a man on a solitary journey across the Indian Ocean in a sailboat. His boat runs into a shipping container floating in the middle of the sea, which leaves a gaping hole in the hull, and he must deal with the consequences and survive.
The film is gorgeous, and as always, picking five representative shots was hard. I encourage you to see the film and see each of these shots in context. I should warn you that this post may contain spoilers, if you’re sensitive about that sort of thing.
In shot number one, Redford is asleep in a hammock the first night after his boat was damaged. He hasn’t had time to pump the bilges and water swirls below him as he sleeps – on a rainbow colored hammock, you will note. He is literally inches away from drowning and we have yet to pass the movie’s fifteen minute mark.
Redford’s character is not a happy man. He is stoic and capable, taking everything in stride, even approaching doom. He hears rain pattering on the deck and comes out to feel the water on his skin. This is one of the only times we see him smile. The shot continues as he pulls his sleeves back and washes his arms, staring almost reverently at them. It’s a worshipful moment.
This is one of my favorite shots in the film. Redford’s boat is sinking. We see it slipping under the waves for several seconds before cutting to this shot and witnessing his complete resignation. His hands, normally so active, are hanging lifeless over the side. Given how the camera is placed, close by and slightly below Redford, I think this could have easily been a hopeful moment, but Redford’s expression and posture completely destroy that idea.
A freighter passes very close to Redford one night. He shoots a flare and shouts to gain their attention. This shot emphasizes how fruitless his efforts at being rescued are. Nothing is shown in the frame except the freighter and the flare, and the black distance between them.
There are several beautiful underwater shots in the film, but none have such a variegation of light. The burning raft alone is enough to make this shot memorable.
I’ve decided to start a habit (and I challenged my brother to do the same thing, so remind him). Whenever I watch a movie, excepting in the theater, I will pick five shots from the film to post here. The shots may be particularly striking, or they may perfectly encapsulate the spirit of the movie, or they may just be examples of good blocking or good staging. The goal of the exercise is simply to practice paying attention, which I do little enough of.
Yesterday, I watched most of Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad Bird. Bird comes from an animation background, and it shows in how he composed his sequences. Unfortunately, most of the really gripping stuff comes from cutting or camera movement, which are both hard to capture in a screenshot.
This whole list could be composed of nothing but shots of Tom Cruise running. Instead, I picked the first shot Bird gives us of Agent Hunt: the back of his head as he lounges on a prison bunk. The rock-throwing is a nice nod to Captain Hilts, the Cooler King.
Shot number two is just one of many examples of Bird letting the camera do the work for him. The IMF secretary’s car is rammed, shot at, and rolled into a canal, and we experience it all from inside the car. In controlling the audience’s perspective, Bird is giving us a show rather than simply showing us what happened.
The Burj Khalifa sequence and subsequent sandstorm chase scene is a half-hour action set piece in the middle of the film, full of the sort of cinematography that marketing and distribution teams love. I picked one shot from early on in the sequence. It’s the sort of thing you can imagine Philip Bloom composing, except for the movie star in the middle of the frame.
In this shot, Cruise has just lost the man he was chasing in the sandstorm and he pulls out his tracker to find him. The shot doesn’t last very long (few do in this film), but it communicates how overwhelming the storm is by blurring out the character and squeezing him from both sides of the frame. Also, the sound design in this scene is pretty amazing, even on a laptop.
The final action sequence is a little bit of a letdown after Dubai, but this shot stuck out to me. Car mirror shots are not especially unique, except when the villain is dropping down on you from above while you’re busy trying to snuff out a nuclear briefcase. Don’t ask how the mirror got to be at that angle.
Film Fisher is a new movie review site that aims to evaluate movies based on their truth, goodness, and beauty. Naturally, this results in some unconventional movie reviews that try to go beyond, “I didn’t care about the characters and didn’t care enough to wonder why I didn’t care.” If you’ve ever wanted to see Solomon quoted in a review of a Wes Anderson movie or read about Joss Whedon’s careless disregard for what’s great about Shakespeare, this is the site for you.
What excites me most about Film Fisher is that every one of the reviewers still maintains a childlike excitement about good movies. There are plans in the works for a Film Fisher “Film School” (of Fish, no doubt) that will explore the technical side of moviemaking, both of story and production. As video content becomes more and more widespread, I think resources like this will be invaluable for anyone who wants to know the ingredients of the films they’re ingesting.
Check out the site here.
The humorist and suspense novelist Kevin Guilfoile has noted that writing humor is similar to writing thrillers, in that both manipulate the audience into an intended emotional reaction: amusement in the former, fear and anxiety in the latter. They build up tension in the audience, then release it — through laughter or plot resolution, respectively. It’s the opposite of poetry, for which the reader’s own response to the text is as essential to its meaning as the author’s intentions, and which relies less on narrative tension and revelation than on the subtler pleasures of language.
Sorry for the long delay between posts. I am working on finishing my MA, and the work leaks into every moment.
Father sat down on the edge of the narrow bed. “Corrie,” he began gently, “When you and I go to Amsterdam— when do I give you your ticket?”
I sniffed a few times, considering this.
“Why, just before we get on the train.”
“Exactly. And our wise Father in heaven knows when we’re going to need things, too. Don’t run out ahead of Him, Corrie. When the time comes that some of us will have to die, you will look into your heart and find the strength you need— just in time.”
Corrie Ten Boom, The Hiding Place
(HT Robin H.)
I will never forget a visit I made to Ilana, an old friend who had become an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. When I saw her again, she had abandoned her jeans and T-shirts for long skirts and a head scarf. I could not get over it. Ilana has waist-length, wild and curly golden-blonde hair. “Can’t I even see your hair?” I asked, trying to find my old friend in there. “No,” she demurred quietly. “Only my husband,” she said with a calm sexual confidence, “ever gets to see my hair.”
When she showed me her little house in a settlement on a hill, and I saw the bedroom, draped in Middle Eastern embroideries, that she shares only with her husband—the kids are not allowed—the sexual intensity in the air was archaic, overwhelming. It was private. It was a feeling of erotic intensity deeper than any I have ever picked up between secular couples in the liberated West. And I thought: Our husbands see naked women all day—in Times Square if not on the Net. Her husband never even sees another woman’s hair.
She must feel, I thought, so hot.
Compare that steaminess with a conversation I had at Northwestern, after I had talked about the effect of porn on relationships. “Why have sex right away?” a boy with tousled hair and Bambi eyes was explaining. “Things are always a little tense and uncomfortable when you just start seeing someone,” he said. “I prefer to have sex right away just to get it over with. You know it’s going to happen anyway, and it gets rid of the tension.”
“Isn’t the tension kind of fun?” I asked. “Doesn’t that also get rid of the mystery?”
“Mystery?” He looked at me blankly. And then, without hesitating, he replied: “I don’t know what you’re talking about. Sex has no mystery.”
A habit is a shield. Time is always pushing at us, so slowly we don’t even notice. But that slow push has all the weight of a glacier behind it. Our feet slip and we don’t notice we’ve moved until we are already somewhere unfamiliar. Woe to him who loses track of the time. A good habit pushes back, giving us a brief respite in which to get things done. ‘Cause things must be got done.
I collect habits. I love trying out new ones. I hate the feeling of wasted time, that sinking feeling when you know the glacier has pushed you back a few feet. You let down your guard for one day, for one night, for one lazy Saturday morning, and you are faced with an eternity of trying to regain that lost ground. When the guard slips, it’s easier to blame the shield than the arm that held it. So I cast here and there for a replacement.
Coffee is the secret to the productivity of some. Cigarettes allow others to jumpstart their synapses. Some will say late nights, some, early mornings. The president of the United States wears the same suits, eats the same breakfasts, walks the same paths, his daily schedule carefully planed and sandpapered by the Secretary of Efficiency. I bulldoze myself out of bed at the same time every morning for the same reasons, or at least I try. There’s safety in a strong schedule.
Habits are more than productivity hacks. They are lifelines, the guardrails that tell you which path you’re on. I watched a Swedish movie and for the next two weeks, I drank coffee every day. I didn’t need the jolt, but I did need the security. The warm mug and woodsy smell told me that the present moment was enough. Coffee gripped the floor and held back the glacier. For a moment.
The trouble with the world is that it won’t be pitted against itself. A mug of hot coffee is a castle with paper walls. It won’t shield you from the world. It will pants you and point to your insecurities. When the world laughs, coffee will laugh, too.
I need a shield stronger than a calendar. I need boots that will grip the earth. I need a helmet that will focus my sight. I need a sword that will remain faithful, a breastplate to guard my heart, and a belt to keep my pants up. The only habit worth clinging to is the habit of holiness. Any other is a waste of time.
The Philosopher and the Potato
With knife in hand, I heft its earthy weight.
“Is it as real as I?” floats to my mind.
“Perhaps,” the spud rejoins, “you’ll find
“Your answer in the pot or on the plate.”