Busted Halo

Fr. Jake Martin, SJ, looks at the Academy Award nominees and this year’s best films and performances through a spiritual lens — and makes a prediction or two along the way.

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February 28th, 2012

“With Pleasure.”

These are the only words spoken by the hero of The Artist — this year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture — in approximately 100 minutes of screen time. These two little words reverberate far more than the wall of sound that fills our lives at any given moment.

What does it say that this year’s most honored film at the Academy Awards celebrates silence? The success of The Artist, Oscar’s other big winner, Hugo (which also picked up five awards), and fellow nominee The Help, speaks to a need in our culture that goes beyond entertainment. Their public and critical popularity is due in large part to nostalgia. I’m not talking about the kind of cloying, empty nostalgia found on a show like VH1′s I Love the 80s or similar fare; rather, a deliberate, pointed nostalgia that has very specific demands for the present moment. These films demonstrate via the medium of the past what we are lacking in our culture today.

Like all significant works of art, they raise questions that demand answers from both the world we live in and ourselves: Where is the desire and belief that a small group of people …

February 24th, 2012

When a film is nominated for an Oscar — let alone if it wins — it gets a big financial boost. Some movies are made on the premise that their success will come from being recognized at Oscar time. (They’re called “Oscar bait.”) Money aside, an Oscar nomination raises a film’s profile and brings it a new audience, as many people will see a movie simply because it has been nominated. This is certainly the case with The Artist — it seems unlikely otherwise that millions of Americans would be running to see a silent, black-and-white film starring a francophone.

With this in mind, I present three films that didn’t receive the Oscar boost they richly deserved. These movies are both excellent in quality and spiritually enriching; each is very worthy of your consideration.

Bridesmaids

While it would be ludicrous to call Bridesmaids low profile, this excellent film deserves a second look. The summer’s box office surprise owes its success in no small part to its ability to have good, plain fun without any of the slick mean-spiritedness that pervades today’s most successful comedies. Bridesmaids shows that girls can be just as gross as boys, without being off-putting or alienating. …

February 23rd, 2012

“Mr. Martin, why would you wanna be a priest when you could be a comedian, and have all that money and be famous?” asks Ricky. (Ricky is one of the freshmen in my sixth period theology class. He likes to cause diversions. He also makes some strong assumptions about my talent.) In my first post I wrote about how the Oscars were my Super Bowl growing up. I was in awe of the movies and everything related to them and I couldn’t wait to grow up, go to Hollywood, and be a part of that glistening world.

Dolores Hart was a part of that world. In the late 50s and early 60s she was an up and coming starlet, sort of the Selena Gomez or Amanda Seyfried of the Eisenhower era. She co-starred alongside the Justin Bieber of her time, Elvis Presley, in not one but two movies. Her star was ascending and she seemed to have it all. And just like that, she gave it all up and became a nun. Hart’s story is the subject of the film God Is the Bigger Elvis, which is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short.

I’ve known the …

February 20th, 2012

My hands coated in synthetic butter, Diet Coke gurgling up through my straw, I thought, “Lord I believe that I am in your presence and you are loving me.” This is the standard opening of St. Ignatius’ prayer of examen and a line I say regularly, if not rotely. I didn’t expect it to pop into my head an hour into watching Hugo at the local multiplex.

When I decided to enter the Society of Jesus and began to tell friends and family, once the usual pleasantries were exchanged, the interrogation began. Invariably the conversation would turn toward the Spiritual Exercises, that is, the 30 day silent retreat that every first year Jesuit novice is expected to do.

“You mean you can’t talk at all?

“What do you do all day?”

“Don’t you think you’ll go crazy?”

My answer to the last question was invariably, a big, firm, “Probably.”

But I survived the Spiritual Exercises unscathed. Actually, I wound up learning a thing or two along the way, one of the most significant being the rules of discernment, Ignatius style. There are 22 in all, rules that is, and I’m not about to list them here, however I will say …

February 9th, 2012

Who’s art is better, Gaga or Adele? In a competition of art vs. art, how can you compare such different work? Every year at the Oscars, handfuls of excellent but similarly disparate works are pitted against one another for the biggest prize in show business.

This year’s best actor category is a perfect example. Who gave the better performance, George Clooney or Jean Dujardin? Brad Pitt? Gary Oldman? Or Demian Bichir? When one of these men picks up the golden statuette on Feb 26th does that mean it’s irrefutable that he gave the year’s best performance?

No.

It’s highly likely that one of two men will take home the Oscar: George Clooney or Jean Dujardin. Each has given a remarkable performance fully deserving of every accolade they have received. If either wins, they will richly deserve it. And yet, to attempt to compare these performances, let alone pick the better of the two, is absurd at best.

Clooney gives easily the finest performance of his career in The Descendants, as Matt King, the conflicted father of two attempting to keep his family together after his wife winds up comatose. Vulnerability is not the first word one associates with Clooney. …

February 3rd, 2012

Home for the holidays, I told my mother that my students couldn’t believe I was in my thirties. Her response without missing a beat was, “That’s probably because you act so juvenile.” I wish I could say it went uphill from there, but sadly as I was helping to clear the table of turkey, etc., my grandma lamented, “Oh Jake, and you were doing so good! You look like you’ve gained all the weight back.”

In the safe white light of New Years, a colleague’s response to my tales was: “Wow, your family is really harsh.” My family is harsh… sometimes; and sometimes they are ridiculously loving, tender, supportive, manipulative, cowardly and courageous. All of the time, they are human.

Two of this year’s Oscar nominees for Best Picture: Tree of Life and The Descendants, explicitly deal with the very complicated situation of being a member of a family. For better or for worse, we are someone’s daughter, son, father, mother, sister, brother or spouse — and that is no easy task, saturated as it is with all sorts of conflicting agendas and claims that cannot be compartmentalized like a job. With family, you’re in it for life.

While …

January 30th, 2012

It’s always about Meryl. Much like the painfully awkward song and dance numbers and the deadly dull banter between presenters, Streep has become a sort of informal Oscar tradition since her first nomination for The Deer Hunter in 1978. Streep is iconic, perhaps more so than the woman she portrayed to garner her 17th nomination: former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. She is undoubtedly the actress of this or perhaps any generation; whether or not she is the best actress, however, is another story.

Streep is a genius at mimicry, her ability to replicate the physical mannerisms, vocal tonality and inflections of a particular subject — in this case Thatcher — is extraordinary. She can copy any dialect and can disappear physically into a character to the point where there is seemingly not a trace of herself visible — all the marks of a good mimic and yes, perhaps even a good actor. This is all beyond question. But is it great acting? After all, celebrity impersonator Dana Carvey can do all of the above. I will admit comparing Streep to Dana Carvey is a bit extreme, but it does beg the question.

Great art …
January 24th, 2012

This seems to be the dream: to grow up and play in the World Series or the Super Bowl, or the NBA Championships. Every American boy sits in front of the television watching the world’s finest athletes stretch themselves to their physical and emotional limits, hoping that one day, they too will garner a nugget of athletic immortality — hold the trophy, wear the ring, sell the shoes. I was not that boy, and this was not my dream.

This is not to say that I didn’t have my own gather around the TV time — I did — but it had nothing to do with athletic accomplishment and everything to do with self-congratulatory behavior of the highest order. Of course I’m talking about the Academy Awards, the source and summit of every filmmaker’s, film actor’s and film lover’s year. That completely unnecessary, yet utterly imperative, exercise in informing all of show business just how important all of show business is. So while the other kids got excited about the 49ers versus the Dolphins or the Royals versus the Cardinals, I got worked up over Goodfellas versus Dances with Wolves (I still think you made a terrible call on that …

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