He’s Not the Only One Depressed: Luther, the Film by Peter Fraser
The one line that most viewers of the Luther film will remember, and there were not that many viewers – “Most days, I’m so depressed I can’t even get out of bed.” This from the father of the Protestant Reformation as he suffered the heaviness of a church gone to seed.
Somehow that one line gets at everything in this film, both its good intentions and its mediocre execution. The danger of biopics like this one is that the screenwriter is forced to think like the actual historical personage. I doubt there are very many writers who could put words in Luther’s mouth that would sound like things he might actually have said. Bart Gavigan and Camille Thomassen fall rather short of the challenge. This is, of course, why Mel Gibson intends that the characters of his upcoming film Jesus will stick to the words of Scripture, in Aramaic.
Many aspects of this film succeed as historical reconstructions, from the costumes to the set designs to the recreation of a few events – like the Council at Worms. Yet, every time I started liking the film, something embarrassing happened – like John Tetzel portrayed as a snake oil dealer telling a mesmerized crowd, “These monks are standing by to write your names” or Katharina von Bora telling Luther they will make “joyous music together.” People don’t really talk like that, not now, not ever; at least not without blushing.
I saw this film the first time with a handful of Lutheran friends. We stood in the hall after the showing in a sort of obligatory talk-back for ten minutes awkwardly praising Luther’s many accuracies, grateful that a film about a real Christian playing in a real theater didn’t paint him a buffoon. However, I had been told beforehand that the film stayed true to events. And, one would expect that it would since its financing came from Thrivent Financial for Lutherans. One might also expect that it would be very tame, which it is, something designed to “edify” and, I suppose, promote Lutheranism in some way, which it doesn’t really; that is, unless Garrison Keilor decides to have Pastor Inquvist take some of his Lake Wobegon faithful to see it.
More to the point than anything my Lutheran friends have said before and after the film is the silence coming from everyone else. When I saw it that first time, my little party of six was the only party in the entire theater. That’s never a good sign. Even the last total bomb that I braved, Cold Creek Manor, attracted a few daters looking for an excuse to cling to one another. I alone was clinging while watching Luther, clinging to my foolish tongue each time the soundtrack urged me to feel something. My heart was never strangely warmed by the film, so I felt very little. I was interested from time to time by the visualizations of a history I only knew from books, and I was gratified that teachers would have an updated tool by which to teach Reformation history, but not warmed. Judging from the dismal turnouts across the land and Luther’s quick passing into the land of video sales, I am not alone.
We might be tempted to attribute the poor showing and the numerous bad reviews given the film to the spiritual malaise of our culture, but no. My guess is that the upcoming Jesus film by Mel Gibson will break attendance records. People are hungry for some spiritual energy. They want to be elevated. A few years ago, I sat in a packed theater on the liberal East side of Milwaukee and listened to a spontaneous outpouring of applause and weeping at the conclusion of Roberto Benigni’s Life Is Beautiful. The same thing happened on a smaller scale this past year when I saw a beautiful little film by Tom Tykwer called Heaven.
The problem here is that we have one of the greatest men who ever lived relegated to a film as flat as the famous table at Worms. If an Irish journalist like Veronica Guerin has her life retold in a B-grade film, no one complains. They are grateful to hear and see the story. But this is Martin Luther, for pity sake. Not a soul could possibly have left a theater after this film thinking, “Well, no wonder he turned the world upside-down. No wonder so many shed their blood preserving this man’s legacy.”
I have seen and written about nearly all the really great Christian films ever made from Robert Bresson’s haunting Diary of a Country Priest to things more accessible and recent as Chariots of Fire. Beyond the force of the genuinely authentic, what makes these films so great is that they pull us toward Christ. All the great films have some kind of incarnation in them. God manifests himself in some way or another. It may be overt miracle like the healing of Ben Hur’s mother or sister in the old William Wyler classic or the miracle of providence that propels Eric Liddel around the Olympic track in Chariots of Fire clutching a note from an American runner that says, “As the Good Book says, ‘I will honor those who honor me.’” But it is something.
This Luther film lacks this something. It stays cerebral, appealing primarily to those who want a history that aligns with accepted dogma and tradition. It is respectful and superficially accurate and anything but a holy fire. I had no inclination after the film to go home and speak tenderly to my wife or embrace my children or pick up my Testament and read. More is the pity.
Perhaps a film like this needed to be made by an atheist who stumbled across the wonder of Luther the man and Christianity the religion. The best comment about this film that I heard came from someone who knew little of Luther or Lutheranism beyond the dry little church his grandmother attends. He said he was glad to learn a little about the Lutheran faith, so he forgave the film its faults. Thank God for that much.
The worst side of the Luther film may be that it confirms many people in their belief that Lutherans are a parochial and safe bunch, dipping only a toe into the water of culture, then pulling back and wiping it with a proud smile. Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.
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Tommy Richards, early TV 12, Milwaukee, WI
"Richards appeared as an old theater usher named "Pops", who worked at the fictional Bee-Jou (Bijou) Theater. With a studio audience full of cub scouts and brownies, Pops told tasteless jokes, talked about his wife Effie, and introduced the showing of old Three Stooges shorts by shouting "Roll 'Em, Lester" as the movie was about to begin." www.toontracker.com/milwaukee/pops.htm
Jay Saeger popped in the door. Jay said that you had Pops Theater, TV 12. That hit a memory track. Bob Raasch, stage hand, Vegas, stopped for breakfast. He said that you played the Sahara, a wild and crazy guy. How do keep some one in line who is famous? Back to topics
Plot Summary for
Whistling in Brooklyn (1943) by Jim Knoppow www.imdb.com/title/
Wally Benton, "The Fox", master detective on radio is about to go, with his sweetheart, to Niagra Falls in order to get married. Unknown to him, his valet has told a newspaper reporter that Benton is 'Constant Reader', someone who has sent information to newspapers about murdered people and where to find their bodies, thus making the police look bad. The police are sure that 'Constant Reader' is the murderer himself, no one else could know all of the details. And so they begin a chase after Benton, a chase which leads to old abandoned warehouses and old abandoned mansions. Wally is being chased not only by the police, but also by the real 'Constant Reader'. Can he save his girl, his assistant, and the reporter and solve the crime before either the villain or the police, who have been told to shoot on sight, kill them all? Back to topics
Harry Potter – Ching Ching by Peter Fraser
The best thing about Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is the story’s author J.K. Rowling, whose imaginative conjuring of the world of Hogwart’s School of Witchery and Wizardry, with all of its fresh details and vivid characters, can only be compared with L. Frank Baum’s Oz or C.S. Lewis Narnia.
There is a magic mirror quality to Harry Potter, as there is a magic mirror in fact in the center of the story. What you see inside are desires made real. When Harry Potter walks through a brick wall in a train station to find the correct platform for the train to Hogwart’s, we step through the wardrobe, so to speak, with him and find ourselves in an amazingly vivid and convincing new reality. The moment of surprise we experience when the streets of this other London materialize alone makes the film worth watching.
Harry Potter is the choice to take it beyond two hard covers and the head of a single child, to this gigantic The worst thing about commercial machine designed to market as many artifacts of the Rowling world as will fill department store shelves, and then Christmas stockings.
This is number one of seven proposed films. Seven. Even the title Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone reminds us of the blitzkrieg at hand. I would be inclined to dismiss this commercial onslaught as “the nature of the business” were it not, in my mind at least, a contradiction of the themes of the film, which are 1) the need for imaginative escape in a conformist, middle-class society – magic in the books and film (Christians may relax) stands as a metaphor for a childlike need for the world of fantasy – and 2) the danger of power placed in the wrong hands – the evil Lord Voldemort who has used his powers for self-glorification. The mass culture commercialism pushing the Harry Potter machine is run by the forces Rowling implicitly condemns – both conformism and a very powerful and wide-reaching set of ravenous economic interests. The film plays to underdogs. The film is not.
If, however, you can strip Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone from all that binds it to global consumerism run wild and look it as just a film, you will probably enjoy it thoroughly. My children did. So, let’s pretend for a moment that we are all children.
What director Chris Columbus has managed in the film is an exact visualization of the Rowling book, an accomplishment that will prove prudent given how many viewers will match the film to all the memorized details of the story. Most directors find it hard not to tamper with even the best of stories – recall last year’s grotesque rendition of Dr Suess’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
The performances in the film are likewise vivid, from Daniel Radcliffe’s conveyance of wonder, the Harry Potter look, to Robbie Coltrane’s brilliant characterization of the gigantic mentor Rubeus Hagrid, to the cameo roles of Maggie Smith, John Cleese, and Richard Harris. Everything seems proportional and well-toned. The only film that comes to mind on this level is the 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland with Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Edna May Oliver playing Carroll figures they seemed born to play.
The plot of Harry Potter has its innovative twists, like when a chess game comes to life, but overall it resembles the last few Disney blockbusters: a group of underdogs will overcome a series of hurdles en route to a final confrontation with the dark – fill in the blank. The universe is Manichaean, which is to say that good is good and evil is evil, and we are going to watch the two grapple for six more films.
In this generic blandness, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone is unfortunately doomed to suffer some poor comparisons to the next blockbuster coming at us – The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien’s story carries in it all the source material for Rowling’s but with far-greater human insight. Assuming all things filmic are the same, The Lord of the Rings will have the longer shelf life.
And one more thing. To all those folks who fear the shady witchery of Harry Potter, I offer a consolation. The appearance of magic – be it through elves or fairy godmothers or good and evil witches of the east and west – has always been a part of children’s stories. Children see through the gauze of reality more easily, finding readier access to imaginative worlds where life seems more heavenly; that is, closer to the spiritual center of things. Christians should know that center to be God.
It is normal and even hopeful that children, and adults for that matter, in a very scientific and rational age, clouded by ominous threats of global doom, should find pleasurable escape in a magical world where brooms can fly and where chessmen come to life. Didn’t God create the human imagination? And, in an odd way, doesn’t Harry Potter just remind us that we are not merely a bundle of chemical and biological processes? And that we are not doomed? There may even be some extra coals in the fire this Christmas.
As always seems to happen when the forces of censorship converge, conservative Christians who encourage their fellows to avoid or condemn Harry Potter target the wrong work. Rowling is a friend of the faith. Where is the outcry over Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, a set of books intentionally anti-Christian?.
Peter Fraser is Professor of English and Chair of the Dept. of English at Wisconsin Lutheran College in Milwaukee. He has authored two books on film and culture. Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.
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Riding in Cars with Boys and Girls by Peter Fraser
I read recently that Hollywood will be turning more toward human interest stories in the wake of the recent national terror, an acknowledgement that perhaps, just perhaps, the loss of human decency that has so marked Hollywood films over the last two decades might be having a negative effect on the culture. Imagine that.
It has been rare the last few years to find in Hollywood films what we have been seeing in foreign and independent films – intelligent stories about real people told with some measure of skill. The studios used to major in that sort of thing. Not lately. Now we tend to get implausible stories about dislikeable people told poorly, with dialogue written for semi-literate teenagers, and cinematography borrowed from MTV and perfume ads.
My expectations have sunk quite low, but perhaps things are about to change. Penny Marshall’s recent film Riding in Cars with Boys may offer some hope. The film tells the story of writer Beverly Donofrio, who got pregnant at age fifteen and was compelled to marry the father, a likable loser who tragically turns heroin addict. Donofrio, played adequately by Drew Barrymore, struggles to raise the boy and climb from the poverty of her life to achieve some measure of self-respect. The film follows this journey through the complex growing relationships between Donofrio and her policeman father (James Woods), her husband (Steve Zahn in a fine performance), and the young child, a boy.
Now like most films of the last twenty years that attempt to say something important, Riding in Cars with Boys is about a half-hour too long. In fact, Penny Marshall’s direction might be the worst performance in the whole film; yet Marshall does, at least until the very end, try to describe the human condition in the complexity of real living. The film has some powerful moments. In one, after Donofrio sends her husband and his drug problem packing, a very questionable decision, the boy runs out in the street calling for his father to take him with, and then collapses in heartbreaking tears inside the door of his house. We side with the boy and find ourself disliking Donofrio, the purported heroine. The film allows this.
Likewise, Drew Barrymore is never glamorized on the screen as, say, Julia Roberts in a somewhat similar (yet far worse, far preachier) film, Erin Brockovich. No one would see Riding in Cars with Boys and go out to buy a Drew Barrymore poster. This creative decision adds to the believability of the story and forces us to exam each character on a deeper level than how good they look in a swimsuit. Small consolation perhaps, but Hollywood has indeed sunk so low.
The film’s primary fault lies in its failure to show us how Donofrio climbed out of her mess by attending college over several years and eventually getting a masters in creative writing and then making it in the tough publication industry. We get as far as her decision to go it alone, without her husband, before the film flashes forward to her with a manuscript for a book in hand. Too bad, since that patient effort to climb through education and effort – reading and studying and writing essays and overcoming rejection – punctuated her achievement. People need to see that, not just the angst of broken relationships.
All in all, however, this film about a real person struggling with real life problems, flawed though it is, tells a story worth telling with an honesty rare these days. One only hopes that Hollywood follows through and offers us more of the same, and better.
Peter Fraser is Professor of English at Wisconsin Lutheran College and author of two books on film, faith, and culture.
Also see Books by Author Peter Fraser.
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Independent Comedy Filming in Milwaukee
The independent comedy Port of Call, filming in Milwaukee, exposes the lesser-known side of drinking in Milwaukee. The side with inter-dimensional portals and visitors from places like hell.
Port of Call follows the misadventures of three friends on a quest to return The Holy Dice Cup of Antioch, a dice cup that allows the winner of a dice game to control the universe. The cup is left by three drunken Greek Gods who stop by the bar called Port of Call, which has an inter-dimensional portal in it. Strange visitors are constantly popping by to play bar dice and have a beer, so the bar regulars think nothing of it.
“Playing bar dice is huge in Wisconsin, so that’s where the idea comes from,” said screenwriter and co-director Glen Popple. “The basic idea behind bar dice is if you roll higher than the bartender you get a free drink. In Port of Call, instead of a drink you might get control of the universe.”
Gary, holder of the cup, JD, his female bartender friend, and Steve, drinking buddy extraordinaire, travel through the inter-dimensional portal to return the unwanted dice cup. Gary runs into his ex-wife, Mikki, who truly is the Daughter of Satan. She has plans of her own for the dice cup and ruling the universe. And while Disco was bad, what Mikki plans to unleash upon humanity is far worse. It is up to Gary and his friends, with a little help from the not-so-evil demon Herbie, to keep the dice cup in the right hands.
Despite budgetary constraints, complicated scenes such as a bar in hell and inter-dimensional travel have not daunted the intrepid moviemakers and cast.
“What is great about independent film is that whatever you lack in budget, you have the opportunity to make up for in creativity, and I believe that is what we are doing,” said Adrian Lilly, co-director of the film.
Principal cinematography is being filmed in Milwaukee as well as other locations in Wisconsin. The film is being shot on digital video and will conform to theatrical and television audio and visual standards. The movie is being produced by Mutant Bar Monkey Productions. Learn more at www.mutantbarmonkey.com.
Port of Call promises to be a multi-dimensional comedy.
Dirty.................................................... Rex Sikes
Gary................................................... Christopher Nicholas
Steve.................................................. David Oplinger
JD....................................................... Laura Lynn MacDonald
Connie................................................ Kim Tindell
Herbie................................................ Adrian Lilly
Mikki.................................................. Jane Ramage
Myron................................................ Jesse Messerschmidt
For more information: www.mutantbarmonkey.com
Contact: Adrian Lilly at firstname.lastname@example.org
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