From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: French director’s influence apparent in two new releases

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the March 21, 2002 edition of the Inland Register)

The influence of the great French film director Jean Renoir figures prominently in both films for this edition of “Media Watch.”

In 1939 Renoir directed and starred in his masterpiece Rules of the Game. He gave us his interpretation of the manners and ethics of the rich of France right before World War II.

Director Robert Altman — for some, an acquired taste — takes us back to a large English estate in 1932 in his lavish new production Gosford Park, his take on the lives of the wealthy and their servants.

I thoroughly enjoyed this outstanding production which involves some of the greatest actors of our time in a brilliant ensemble cast.

Gosford Park is seen through the servants’ eyes so there is always a servant in the background of the scene who is watching what is happening. The characters are fascinating. To a movie of manners is added a English murder mystery that I found incredibly interesting.

The seemingly rich and famous arrive at an elaborate chateau-like estate on a very rainy weekend. Sir William McCordle (Michael Gambon) has invited relatives and friends to a shooting party. His wife (in name only), Lady Sylvia (Kristin Scott Thomas), tries to deal with two even more miserably married sisters. Aunt Constance (Maggie Smith) takes the cake with her smugness and strong opinions of all those gathered at the beautiful mansion. Among other characters are a Hollywood producer (Bob Balaban) and a famous star of the time named Ivor Novello (Jeremy Northam).

Each of the guests has a personal servant who is merged in with the household staff, led by Mrs. Wilson (Helen Mirren). So at times we are present when the downstairs staff eats their evening meal. At other times we are with the upper class at their perfectly measured place settings upstairs.

The bird shoot is almost an exact copy of Jean Renoir’s shooting scene in Rules of the Game. The script by Julian Fellowes is powerfully layered as he pokes fun at the rich and famous while at the same time giving depth and integrity to some of the servants.

Maggie Smith alone is worth the price of admission. She is absolutely perfect as a prickly elderly woman. She herself is dependent on others for her income that enables her to be one of the elite.

By the end of the film we come to fully appreciate the impeccable acting of Helen Mirren. But with 25 or so of the best actors of our time in ensemble, Gosford Park excels with strong performances all around.

Gosford Park is certainly the type of film that merits more than one viewing. But don’t let that keep you away from at least one viewing.

At age 76, Robert Altman shows what a mature director can do. He may not consider Gosford Park his masterpiece. But for me its the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in ages. I’m willing to say in the long run it has the potential to be a masterpiece.

Gosford Park is rated R for language and brief sexuality. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ rating is A-IV — adults, with reservations.

*****

In 1937, Renoir, the son of the painter Auguste Renoir, filmed his cinematic war masterpiece, Grand Illusion. If my memory is correct, in the entire film there is one scene of a few minutes when guns are fired, and they are pistols at that.

This year, director Ridley Scott gives us his war film, Black Hawk Down, and the violence of war as seen by the director is virtually non-stop. I have to admit I missed 5-10 minutes of the film because I closed my eyes. To my mind it is the most violent film I have ever seen.

Scott’s film is based on the newspaper reportage by Mark Bowden, accounts later published as a book. Black Hawk Down tells the story of the United States’ most costly firefight since Vietnam. The event is the mission that turns into disaster as U.S. Rangers and Delta Forces seek to capture the enemy’s leadership in Somalia in 1993. Two Black Hawk helicopters are shot down by the Somali partisans. The U.S. troops are ordered to bring every American body back. At the end of the film we are told that 19 Americans died and roughly 1,000 Somalis were killed.

As difficult as Black Hawk Down was for me to watch, I readily admit it is brilliantly directed by Ridley Scott. He deserves his Oscar nomination for Best Director. How anyone could put together such incredible battle scenes is beyond my comprehension. The cinematography is also award-winning. The editing is incredible.

But we really never get to know the characters, played by actors including Josh Hartnett, Ewan McGregor, Tom Sizemore and Sam Shepard. They are like chess pieces on a giant board, moved about by the director to give us a colossal video game experience. Because of the emphasis on the war scenes we hardly know the Americans. But above all we have no concept of the humanity of the Somalis they are fighting. Sure, a couple of times we see a native woman huddled with her children as the camera focuses on an American soldier in danger. And near the end we see an old man carrying a dead or wounded child in front of the retreating Americans. But there is no real sense that these are people, something more than points to be scored for shooting them.

Today’s film makers can show us incredibly vivid images of violence. Do we wonder how much is too much? And just because directors have access to this kind of technology, able to put the audience almost within a battle, with all its horror — does that mean they should? It is at least worth a serious discussion.

Black Hawk Down is an amazing accomplishment for those who can stomach the violence. It you have any problem with so-called “movie violence,” I assure you this film is not for you.

The R rating is for intensely realistic and graphic war violence. That is the understatement of the century. It is also rated R for language, which is as mild as I have ever heard in a war film. I assume you hear worse language on a school playground. Ridley Scott makes sure Ken Nolan’s screenplay is minimal in regard to all language. But he gives us pictures that at times are incredibly beautiful and at other times — in fact, most of the time — are so horrendous they are the makings of nightmares.

I hope future war films come back to the humanity of the combatants and civilians. I hope this is about as far as we go in visuals and sound in showing the violence of war.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates Black Hawk Down A-IV — adults, with reservations.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane.)

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