Friday, September 10, 2010


I watched a movie last night. Woo-hoo, right? Well, typically, upon finishing a book or movie—and I can’t say this is the case for just any book or movie, but one that HITS me—I like to write about it. I don’t like the word “review,” but I probably ought to call a spade a ... well, not a SPADE, because that’s simply not enough, and it’s so cliché. (the Greeks, from what I understand, call figs figs, but I think the OED sites the most appropriate for the day:) So I will call a spade a “bloody shovel,” because this is likely to be significantly more than a movie review.

In the past (and still), upon a great book/movie experience, I’ve emailed a fellow literary conspirator with my thoughts, or simply given expansion to a recommendation (I rarely “review” that which I don’t care for, mostly, because I rarely finish that which I don’t care for, and I’m not going to recommend a movie that I don’t— sorry, I’ll move on). When the show or book’s really good—or impacting, at least—I frequently wish I were back with my old kids at the Saginaw Arts and Sciences Academy and that we might watch, appreciate, tear to pieces, and get it. Well, I don’t have SASA. Heck, I don’t have a school at all. OR students, for that matter. I do, however, have fellow literary conspirators, and that’s whom this is seeking.
Back to the lack of a school:

Every review or critique—mine, anyway—needs a context, else there’s no understanding for the nature of the impression, or, in this particular case, the CRATER. So, I’m couching this movie review in unemployment—and not because that’s the title of my freaking BLOG and that I’m particularly interested in maintaining a theme, but because my COUCH—the very one from which I watched the movie (or at least it’s pillows which supported my view from the floor, because my back was hurting) —IS unemployment. Or my glasses are, at least.

So I watched John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt. I loved it. Period. (DISCLAIMER: if you have any thoughts that my review might be anything more than totally subjective and if you might be offended thereby, then, please, stop reading.) So, yeah, it was great. Here’s what I think (excuse the general generic-ness of the beginnings):

The performances are wonderful. I’m a big fan of the accents, for one thing. And Philip Seymour Hoffman—man! —really dug into his Father Flynn sermons. When it comes to it, and despite how great the interactions between him and his co-stars might be, these sermons were the highlight. I particularly enjoyed how each (four, I think, altogether, and two significantly better than the others) seemed to usher in the next act, which, of course, makes sense, as it was adapted from Shanley’s own stage play. (I’d love to see that.) More on the sermons later.

I appreciated Shanley’s selection for historical context. It would have been easy, and a copout, to put it all up in a more modern time, what with the Catholic church’s bad press with priests and scandals and stuff. What’s great about putting it so much earlier is he firmly points out that the movie’s not about the potential scandal (and this reinforced by the enacted, non-lexical iteration/rendering of the title in the abrupt and perfectly-placed End), but the swirls of leaves and feathers that surround it.

That being the case, I’m brought up to probably my biggest point of the movie (and thereby explain my general inability to write of the movie concisely and fluidly). But first, a word on art and poetry (please refrain from groaning):

For me—and I’ve tried to instill this in my students—art is, and should be, personal. Who cares how great a work or event or person is if it/he/she doesn’t mean something to you (case in indirect point: while I was amazed by Yann Martel’s most recent book, Beatrice and Virgil, I couldn’t understand why he—so not-a-Jew—should write such an evidently personal account of the Holocaust, and in such a way as to make it appear that the book was no more than a writing exercise designed to determine his ability at conveying a significant piece of history—it could have even been randomly selected, but I guess he was looking for audience—as artistic metaphor!)? It’s difficult for me to say exactly why any of my very favorite works are favorite. I can point out what I think makes them great or impressive, but the personal connection is the clincher. The emotional connection is what elevates the work to—another cliché—more than the sum of its constituent parts. That’s what’s happened with Doubt. Cinematography. Location. Season. Cast. Delivery. Pacing. Metaphor. Motif. Blah. Blah. Blah. Just pieces. Take the blinding old nun, for example, and her relationship with Sister Beauvier (Streep) Maybe it was just a tool, but were she not there, Beauvier would look like the dragon Hoffman’s Flynn labels her as from the beginning. But she’s not! She’s human! Though we very nearly in fact and indeed see her in no more human capacity than a great fire-breathing lizard. And her relationship with Amy Adam’s character, Sister James. This woman—Streep’s—is a good person, trying to do what’s right, but she screws up. She points the finger (echoing, conversely, the great God-finger from the gossip sermon) at Flynn.

So back to the sermons. The two strongest are the first, regarding the general issue of doubt, and later—the second? —about gossip (this one because it was just amazingly-well presented by Hoffman—yes, AMAZING). Obviously, that first sermon sets up the premise for the whole movie, and how it permeates so much of everything—like those scattered feathers of gossip do—throughout every little nook and cranny of the plot, its characters, and into the very fabric of the whole construct. Really, it’s a very small movie, technically speaking. A Hulme or Pound compared to the epoch operatics of a Tolkein or Steinbeck. But, and just like “Town Sky-Line” or “The Garrett,” it’s SO * MUCH * MORE.

So what?

(This isn’t changing the subject. Really.)

While I served my LDS mission in Italy, many of the other missionaries and I collected quotations and anecdotes from and about big members of the church, generally and particularly regarding Joseph Smith. My favorite of these, likely apocryphal, and not about Smith, regarded a current member of the Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, Dallin H Oaks:

Oaks had just been called to the Quorum of the Twelve and, as such, delivered his first General Conference talk. He stepped into an elevator soon thereafter and was joined by President Kimball, who congratulated him on Oaks’ address. Oaks was gratified and smiled. “Thank you very much,” he said. President Kimball then said, rather abruptly, “Therefore what?” “Pardon me?” Oaks asked. “Therefore what?” Kimball repeated. “It was a wonderful talk, but therefore what?”

The point, which I took when I heard the story and hold still is this: it doesn’t matter how eloquent or scholarly or humorous or whatever a presentation or work may be if it doesn’t ask anything of the audience (sort of takes down to nothing—if we apply this to the act of creating art—making art for the sake of making art and doing it for self (though I’ve got opinions there, too—another time)). So, the movie, Doubt. Therefore what? Well, here it is. Doubt. That’s the answer—the therefore-what: DOUBT. Duh—which is nearly as universally applicable as is my blog title, only less generic, as it turns out.

So why “doubt,” if this is such a personal work for me? And that first sermon of Father Flynn’s nails the big question. Is IT—doubt—a good thing, an endowment from our Maker—forcing us into care and caution? Is it the divining force toward humility, wariness, gratitude? The problem with this is that, from my understanding, caution is the opposite of impetuousness, and shouldn’t we, as testifying Christians (I speak of me, here), heedlessly/impetuously do whatever is right—black and white—and right now?

Sheesh. What does that even mean?

If I were impetuously GOOD, would I have stayed with Bud or left anyway? ...I have my doubts.... (ha!) (And, I swear, I will only permit myself two more entries that even mention the man; I’ve had other jobs, after all.)

Let’s look at it—Stay versus Go Anyway. And it really only amounts to a bunch of questions—all ultimately pointless, because I’ve already resigned! 
Further: doubt regarding—
  • how I discipline my children,
  • working for Bud,
  • joining Facebook,
  • leaving public education,
  • leaving Michigan?
  • Is Father Flynn’s “wind” blowing at my back as well? And if so, is it destiny or suggestion? 
So I finished the movie. I already mentioned this, but here it is again: The ENDING is perfect in timing and significance—perfect. Perhaps less so because of itself and its location on the spectrum of PERFECTION, than for the subjectivity of my viewing, and it hit me, less perhaps because it was a great movie than because it was so stinking applicable. Unemployment lends doubt, man!

So this was not an unbiased or objective critique. I apologize. I warned you. But watch the movie. We’ve all got our doubts.


  1. I don't think that the older nun is supposed to be a dragon. The problem is that she more acutely experiences doubt than any other character, even though throughout the entire movie she has the appearance of certainty. Not only does she experience Doubt about Father Flynn, but she sees the church being led into moral decay by a bunch of bleeding-heart people who think that anything goes. Since the movie takes place in the 1960s, after the Second Vatican Council, she can see that this is the way that the church is headed, and she sees herself as the defender of the old order. All the time, though, she can't avoid the nagging suspicion that what she is doing in order to defend the institution and faith that she grew up with might actually be a violation of God's will. Is she really working for the greater good, and, if so, do the means justify the end? As she hauntingly repeats toward the end, "In the pursuit of wrongdoing, one steps away from God." What is the result of her wrongdoing? She is crippled with doubt over whether she really had God's blessing to do this, and she will go to her grave without any resolution. It's horribly ironic, but I think that she is supposed to be the character most worthy of our pity at the end. If Father Flynn is innocent, then he will always have that peace of mind. If not, he deserves what he got. Sister James is scarred and jaded by the experience, but she at least knows that the situation is not her fault. But it is Sister Aloysius who can never have peace, even though, faced with doubt, she did what she thought was ultimately for the best.

  2. The ambiguity at the end--the very fact that it's NOT ABOUT HIS GUILT--is one of the greatest demonstrations of writing craft I've witnessed in a long time.

    And did I get Streep's character name wrong? I was thinking of her and Flynn's reference to her early on a "the dragon;" I don't think she's meant to be The Dragon, though she heads in that direction when, as you point out, she steps away. But she could have prevented her own doubt/guilt but simply recognizing that it's never right--if you believe in God--to step away from him. Why would he ask us to do that?

  3. I don't think it's that easy. If she doesn't lie, Flynn stays at the school. What if he really is sexually abusing children? The greater good then is to tell the lie and get rid of him. However, a lie in-and-of-itself is a sin. Another analogy would be a murderer threatening to kill many people. Killing is wrong, and I don't think I could do it without a serious crisis of faith. However, if I don't kill the murderer, then a greater evil is going to take place. The problem is that people of faith find themselves in a perverse and sinful world where it's not always easy to tell what is the right thing. Sometimes the choice is between the lesser of two evils.

  4. Yeah, yeah. But she didn't do her due diligence, she only said she did. Sure, it brought him to the point of doing what she wanted, but what was her true motivation. There, as far as I'm concerned, is another equally significant doubt! Sister James, I believe, saw through her. But at the same time, no one's character in the movie is trustworthy.... How to tell? You don't! That's the whole beautiful point.

    I think you and I are agreeing more than we're letting on. I'm really--yes, I'm blaming here--tired. My communication skill is down. I don't think I'm really saying what I'm intending.

    Anyway, I'm happy you loved the movie. I remember it got mixed reviews.

  5. I'm tired, too, so I'm sure that's not helping.

    I agree with you that her motivation is in question. The fact that she has the talk with the mother who shockingly makes it clear that she doesn't care as long as he makes it through the school year, and she still tries to get rid of Father Flynn certainly raises questions about whether it's about the kids. Personally, I don't think it is. I think the bigger issue is that she thinks that through not only the possibly inappropriate relationship, but also through his liberalizing tendencies, he is ruining the church as she knew it, and as she thought the church SHOULD be. I think it seems clear to many of us; at least it was clear to me that what she ends up doing crosses the line, but in her mind, it's most likely the right thing to do in order to save the church. We know that by the end even she is having second thoughts, though. Sister James does see through this with that one litany of things that she claims, "You don't like [about Father Flynn]," all of which are things that he does that are against the old guard.

  6. I think that's a really good point, and another theme of the author's: the difficulty of change, and when the category that saved us is changing, we take it personally and blame the anyone in favor of the change.