Beyond the Multiplex

Director Michel Gondry traps the magic of love in "The Science of Sleep." The filmmakers of the explosive documentary "Jesus Camp" talk about being panned by the religious right. This week in Beyond the Multiplex.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published September 21, 2006 12:00PM (EDT)

There's a moment in Michel Gondry's new movie, "The Science of Sleep," when Stéphane, the often addled (and often sleeping) French-Mexican character played by Gael García Bernal, finds a particular chord on the out-of-tune piano in the Paris apartment of the girl he's wooing. It's a magical chord, the one that makes clouds -- clouds made of cellophane and tissue paper, naturally -- levitate to her ceiling and hang there for a few seconds.

Of course this moment of pure, disbelief-suspending delight charms Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), the tall, severe, gawky-graceful creature who is the focus of Stéphane's affections. You could say other things, if you want to step back and look at this moment with intellectual dispassion: It's a metaphor for making the impossible possible, and for capturing what can't be captured. That's what all art forms do, when they work, and what film does in a particularly literal way. It's certainly what this whimsical, lyrical film, Gondry's first as a writer-director, tries to do. But it's still not enough to bridge the distance between Stéphane and Stéphanie.

Fall brings such a dizzying onslaught of new films, so many of them serious, well crafted and made with superb intentions. It can be hard to tell one bittersweet coming-of-age comedy from the next, one wrenching performance from another. There was room, it seems, for only one downwardly mobile, drugged-out white character this season. Ryan Gosling's turn as a coked-out junior-high teacher in the extraordinary "Half Nelson" has captured a tiny corner of the zeitgeist, but Maggie Gyllenhaal's mom-in-recovery role in "Sherrybaby" (a movie I think is almost as good) has vanished into the pond of pop culture with nary a ripple.

So I know better than to make predictions about "The Science of Sleep," which is a far more intimate and personal film than Gondry's 2004 hit "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." But I can promise you this: No one who sees it will confuse it with anything else. Fans of Gondry's DIY low-tech aesthetic, which he blends, as always, with exceptionally sophisticated animation techniques, will adore it.

Those eager for a conventionally satisfying romantic comedy, on the other hand, may feel frustrated. "The Science of Sleep" is more precious and more haphazard than that. Instead of a plot, it has a lovely ambient state of love and longing; in place of the "Pride and Prejudice" progression from mutual misunderstanding to marriage, it offers an overly self-conscious young couple, perennially and precariously poised between yes and no.

Everything about "The Science of Sleep," as Gondry made clear when I spoke to him a few weeks ago, is profoundly personal. (Listen to a podcast of my conversation with him here.) It's a French film made mostly in English, whose lead character struggles to communicate in his second and third languages. (Gondry's English is better than Stéphane's French, but in conversation he still battles verb tenses and idioms.) The extraordinary dream sequences that dominate the film, with their giant stuffed animals, cardboard cars and machines, and a giant papier-mâché model of Paris, are all based, Gondry says, on his own dreams. The story was conceived, he adds, as a love letter to an old girlfriend, a way of capturing something on film that hadn't quite worked out in life.

So "The Science of Sleep" is an odd combination of elements, a misty-eyed and even mystical romance with a core of painful emotional realism. Stéphane is trapped in a deadly (if hilariously presented) desk job and is lying to Stéphanie (for no particular reason) about the fact that he's her next-door neighbor. He makes wonderful presents for her, the kinds of things bound to win any girl's heart: an adorable robot horse; a time machine that can go one second into the future or past (useful for sneaky kisses), glasses that show real life in 3-D. (Stéphanie observes that real life is already in 3-D. Oh, well.)

But only in his increasingly epic dreams can Stéphane behave even remotely like a man in love with a woman. In person, he's a man-child, a prevaricating coward and sometimes a creep. This movie walks a fine line, and it's going to drive some viewers absolutely bats. I think that's because, underneath its layers of fancy and confection, it cuts pretty close to the bone. But if you were ever a Stéphane or a Stéphanie, passionately in love but trapped in your own head -- and if you're at peace with that part of yourself now -- "The Science of Sleep" may hold you suspended in magical space, up there near the ceiling.

"The Science of Sleep" opens Sept. 22 in New York, Los Angeles, Austin, Boston, Portland, Ore., San Francisco, Seattle, Toronto, Vancouver and Washington, with a national rollout to follow on Sept. 29.

"Jesus Camp": Christian soldiers or an engaged citizenry? We report, you decide
Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady were bound to piss people off with their explosive documentary "Jesus Camp," which I first saw several months ago at the Tribeca Film Festival. It was just a question of who, when and how much. The film follows a group of Midwestern kids who attend an evangelical Christian summer camp in North Dakota led by Becky Fischer, a leading Pentecostal youth minister with an avowedly political mission.

It's a glimpse into a world most secular, metropolitan liberals never see, and it's likely to induce howls of both terror and hilarity from big-city audiences. (For more on the evangelical movement of young hipsters that's sweeping through the culture right now, read Lauren Sandler's recent story in Salon, "Come as You Are.") Fischer tells her charges that their mission is to remake America, urging them to be just as ready to give up their lives for Jesus' sake as Muslim kids in Palestine are (she says) to kill themselves for the Prophet. She prays over her Macintosh and her PowerPoint presentations. She leads her kids in praying over a cardboard cutout of George W. Bush, who is openly and repeatedly acknowledged as their movement's political avatar.

"Jesus Camp" has now come under attack from the Rev. Ted Haggard, the powerful pastor of a Colorado megachurch, and head of the National Association of Evangelicals, who appears in the film. Haggard's real problem may be that he comes off like a cynical, showbizzy creep, especially compared to the profoundly committed and idealistic kids at the heart of the film (and even compared with Fischer, who may be frightening but is certainly authentic in her beliefs). Be that as it may, Haggard has urged all evangelical Christians not to see the film, which Ewing and Grady clearly hoped would speak, perhaps in different ways, to religious and non-religious audiences of all political persuasions.

In an attempt to short-circuit exactly this kind of criticism, Magnolia Pictures opened "Jesus Camp" first in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, hoping that strong word of mouth in evangelical-rich communities might counteract the big-city reviews. So far, it hasn't worked. Heartland audiences have been sparse, and when I meet Ewing and Grady (also the directors of "The Boys of Baraka") for coffee at New York's fabled Algonquin Hotel, they're fired up to defend their integrity.

"Haggard has said that you can learn as much about Catholicism from seeing 'Nacho Libre' as you can learn about evangelicalism from 'Jesus Camp,'" Grady says, "and that it was made in the same spirit as a Michael Moore movie, which I totally disagree with."

"And then he said he didn't like the camera angles. He said it was shot like 'Blair Witch,'" Ewing snaps. "What is he, a movie critic? Excuse me! He should go back on message."

Grady elaborates, in a more modulated tone. "We really took pains to show this community with our point of view out of it as much as possible, and also with compassion. There was a human dimension we made sure to include. I think that's part of why the extremes [in American life] don't have a conversation. Everybody forgets that there's real people on the other side of those ideologies."

"It would have been so easy to make a farce, to ridicule these people, to do a liberal lynching," Ewing says. "We could have done it in our sleep, with the material we had. Instead, we edited this film for 10 months to make sure that we were being fair, so that we could sleep at night. Being fair is all you owe your subject. And the subjects of our film, Ted Haggard aside, believe that it's fair and accurate. We're showing them the way they are in their lives."

The filmmakers saw Becky Fischer in Kansas City last week and report that she is "thrilled" with her presentation in the film. She always understood, they say, that they were secular people from New York with a worldview quite different from hers. (Grady is Jewish, and Ewing describes herself as a lapsed Catholic.)

"We wouldn't want to go into that situation, or any situation, by saying, 'This is my box. I'm a liberal, I'm a Democrat, this is my stance on religion,'" Grady says. "We make documentaries to learn, personally. To go on journeys, personally. You've got to leave all that stuff at the door, because it's boring if you're just going in there to prove a point. Our approach is to walk with people who have been gracious enough, and brave enough, to let us into their world. So it's a shame that this guy who is the most powerful person we have in the film, and who has the biggest soapbox to speak to evangelicals, is telling them not to see it. Not even to see it and make their own decisions. Just not to see it."

Ewing says, "It's funny that the political leadership of the religious right appears to be galvanizing against this film. They're ready to reject this movie, when their constituents, at least the ones we show in the film, love the movie and are unashamed about what they're doing and how they worship. These believers are being dismissed by the leadership, as if they can't understand what has happened to them, as if they've been taken advantage of."

One criticism that's been launched against "Jesus Camp," by both secular and evangelical viewers, is that Fischer's ministry belongs to the charismatic Pentecostal movement, which holds extreme theological and (in some cases) political views, and is regarded as a fringe movement by many other Christians. At Fischer's "Kids on Fire" services, worshipers are slain in the spirit, speak in tongues and prophesy the future. Many Pentecostalists believe that the sick can be healed, and the dead raised, through the laying on of hands (beliefs other evangelicals and fundamentalists do not widely share).

"We want to be clear," says Grady, "that the people in our movie are part of a subset, you might say, of the evangelical world. I would not use the word 'fringe,' because I don't want to dismiss them. But the entire evangelical world might be 100 million people. It's huge, and it's not a monolith. The people we spent time with, I think the high level of political activism participation, and the patriotism, as they express it, is very much intertwined with the way they worship. That's what we saw."

Secular liberals may see these believers, who openly espouse a spiritual renewal in political and public life, as outside the American mainstream tradition. "The American tradition of what?" Grady snorts. "Civic involvement? They're embracing it."

"Look, a majority of people in this country do not really believe that the separation of church and state was the intention of the Founding Fathers," says Ewing. "There is a huge percentage of people in this country who do not worship in the style of the people in our film but who question the separation of church and state, and who do not believe we evolved from earlier species. The people in our film may seem extreme in some ways. But they agree with, possibly, a majority of the American people on these questions.

"They take their civic duty more seriously than anyone I've ever met. There's such cynicism among a lot of liberals and seculars, who aren't voting and who don't believe they can make a difference. A large segment of the evangelical movement does not feel cynical about politics. They feel they can make a difference. They vote and they run for local office. They work in the library, they serve on the PTA. Well, it's a democracy. People who vote get to make the deal. I hate to break it to the secular, liberal audience, but what they're doing ain't illegal."

"Jesus Camp" is now playing in Colorado Springs, Dallas, Independence, Mo., Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Springfield, Mo., and Tulsa, Okla. It opens Sept. 22 in New York; Sept. 29 in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington; and Oct. 6 in Austin, Texas, Boston, Charlotte, N.C., Cleveland, Columbus, Ohio, Denver, Detroit, Indianapolis, Knoxville, Tenn., Minneapolis, Nashville, Palm Springs, Calif., Portland, Ore., San Diego and Seattle, with more cities to follow.

Fast forward: Reliving a lost corner of the '80s in "American Hardcore"; the riches of a decaying friendship in "Old Joy"
Now for two movies that, in a more just and righteous world, would each get its own spotlight. Paul Rachman's cultural-history doc "American Hardcore" unearths an astonishing trove of material from the all-but-forgotten American punk scene of the early '80s. It's not forgotten if you were there, of course, and speaking as someone who was on the outermost fringes of this world (I was into artier and poppier bands, more Sonic Youth than Black Flag) I'm profoundly grateful for this film.

Rachman and writer Steven Blush, who authored the 2001 book that inspired the film, are here to remind us that there really was a zone of cultural-political resistance amid the seeming prosperous conformity of the early Reagan years. As one former hardcore practitioner proclaims, he and his friends were there to announce that it wasn't "morning in America" -- it was fucking midnight.

Yes, some of the hardcore scene was just nihilism and self-destruction -- but, hey, what's wrong with that as a political statement? Furthermore, a lot of it wasn't. Bands like L.A.'s Black Flag (headed, in its later years, by Henry Rollins, this movement's only true celebrity), Washington's Minor Threat (which spawned the still-extant band Fugazi) or Boston's SS Decontrol served to crystallize and focus dissent among white kids who rejected everything about the social revolution Reaganism had waged on their behalf.

Some of "American Hardcore" is amusing -- many of the aging punks Rachman and Blush track down have turned into highly ordinary middle-aged Americans -- and some is profoundly disturbing. Whether you were there or not, you'll witness an extraordinary variety of low-res VHS recordings of obscure live gigs at all sorts of now-decommissioned venues. OK, I once saw the Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies play (and it was terrifying). But I definitely never saw the Zero Boys of Indianapolis, or Richmond, Va.'s White Cross, or the Necros from Toledo. You can virtually taste the blood and smell the vomit, or the other way around as the case may be.

How much did hardcore music and the hardcore sensibility shape the invasion of "alt-culture" into mainstream culture, which occurred long after the first hardcore scene had evaporated, around 1985 or '86? That's a topic for somebody's dissertation, not for me right now. But I can tell you this: A lot of these bands sucked then, and suck now. They had nothing to offer but unchanneled, incoherent rage. But the Bad Brains, and Black Flag, and DOA, and Flipper, and Negative FX, and a few others, fucking rocked ass. They had to break up and grow up and leave their own scene behind, or they'd have become exactly the thing they hated. (Opens Sept. 22 in New York and Sept. 29 in Los Angeles, with a national rollout to follow.)

Kelly Reichardt's "Old Joy" is something like an ultra-economical remake of "Sideways," with music by Yo La Tengo and the plot pushed from the dialogue into the images. Two 40-ish old friends in Portland, Ore., Mark (Daniel London) and Kurt (Will Oldham), go on a camping trip in the Cascade Mountains, get lost looking for a deep-woods hot spring, and spend the night in the middle of nowhere shooting at beer cans with a pellet gun. They find the hot spring the next day, have a soak and go home. That's pretty much it.

But there's an entire world of emotion between these guys, and even if we never discover exactly what the source of the rift or drift between them is, we get enough clues to feel its intensity. Mark and Kurt are aging urban slackers of an identifiable vintage (they probably once liked at least some of the bands in "American Hardcore"). Mark's the faintly responsible one who's finally gotten married and is having a kid. Kurt's the one who's still deliberately rootless, traveling North America in search of an elusive, transformative bliss. If you're somewhere near that demographic yourself, these guys will have the transparency (and opacity) of real people; they won't require explanation.

"Old Joy" (adapted by writer Jonathan Raymond from his own short story) is only 76 minutes long, but it has the contemplative power of Buddhist meditation. Reichardt gives us long, stoned takes of rural roads; shots of birds, insects and slugs in the spectacular Oregon rain forest; interludes with Mark's dog, Lucy. Some viewers may well be bored, or monumentally irritated, by this. I found it masterly, riveting. (Now playing at Film Forum in New York, and also in Ashland, Bend and Portland, Ore. Opens Oct. 6 in Northampton, Mass.; Oct. 13 in Los Angeles; Oct. 20 in San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Calif., and New Haven, Conn.; and Nov. 3 in Albuquerque, Chicago, Montgomery, Ala., and Pittsburgh, with more cities to follow.)

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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