Alissa’s note: Ken Morefield, a long-time contributor to Christianity Today Movies and a cinephile and critic for whom I have great respect, has graciously agreed to write a monthly post we’re calling “The Long Tail.” Each month, he'll look at a few films that are being primarily distributed to American audiences through DVDs or Internet streaming. We'll try to surface some movies that might otherwise fly under the radar. Look for a new column every first Tuesday of the month!
Local multiplexes keep charging more for movie tickets, while their screens are increasingly turned over to franchise films instead of original storytelling. So people who want more viewing options—and don’t want to break the bank—are turning more and more to streaming video. But there’s a lot of choices, and consumers may need a little help sifting through the endless train of smaller films in order to find the hidden gems.
Blake Robbins’s The Sublime and Beautiful is one such under-appreciated film. It did get a theatrical run in New York City, but most movie lovers will have to head over to iTunes in order to see it. Robbins wrote, directed, and starred in the film, which intimately depicts the struggles of college professor David Conrad to overcome his grief after a drunk driver kills his three children.
Robbins said in an interview that most Hollywood films dealing with parental grief are seeking performance awards, and so they compress the time period during which survivors are in shock in order to move the story forward to more dramatic moments. Sublime has a few such set piece scenes—David’s wife falls apart at a party, and David’s thirst for vengeance brings him face to face with his children’s killer. But the film acknowledges the slow, alienating process of dealing with sudden, shocking tragedies.
The film also takes some unexpected turns. David has been involved in an extramarital affair, and he is plagued by guilt at the fact that his children died while he was with his mistress. More importantly, he acknowledges that he is in a rut, feeling discontent with the direction of his life, even before the tragedy takes place.
Robbins said that his goal was to make audiences ask whether there were areas in their own lives that needed their attention. The film was selected by the Arts and Faith Ecumenical Jury as one of the ten best films of 2014 for Christian audiences—although parents should be advised that while the film does not yet have an MPAA rating, it does contain depictions of human sexuality. David’s adultery as well as the moderate use of profanity and obscene language may put off some viewers. Overall, however, the film address psychological and spiritual themes with sensitivity and shows compassion towards those who struggle through one of life’s most intensely painful losses.
The Pleasures of Being Out of Step is available on DVD from First Run Features, but most viewers will probably catch it on Amazon or via some other streaming channel. The documentary film is a portrait of and appreciation for Nat Hentoff, the long-time columnist for The Village Voice.
Hentoff is best known for writing about jazz, and like the more widely-heralded movie Life Itself (about Roger Ebert), Pleasures judiciously shares snippets of Hentoff’s best writing. He’s rightfully called one of the few non-musicians whose contributions to the genre are essential in writing the history of jazz.
Even if you're not interested in music appreciation, the documentary really takes off in its second half, when Pleasures chronicles Hentoff’s transition from “Mr. Liberal” (as one journalist calls him after his defense of the Nazi marches in Skokie) to an unapologetic pro-life advocate. Hentoff calls himself a “Jewish Atheist,” but he adopts the Catholic “seamless garment” argument that a true pro-life position includes opposition to abortion as well as capital punishment and euthanasia. “He thinks he has to follow things through to an absolutist position,” one exasperated interviewee says of his opposition to abortion. “He thinks he has to be . . . pure.”
Rarely do documentary discussions of politics rise above self-congratulatory preening. So the wonder of this second half is that it elevates the movie, rather than dragging it down to the mud.
And what’s more interesting than Hentoff’s reversal on abortion is his testimony of what prompted it. “I started researching fetal surgery,” he says, in response to a high profile case about a child born with Spina Bifida. Today, the prospect of an opinion columnist doing medical research before dashing off a column sounds positively quaint. It is so much easier to just scream talking points into the echo chamber.
The documentary emphasizes The Village Voice’s status as a pioneer of the alternative press and Hentoff’s hand in helping create the role of editorial columnist. But this example reminds us that in Hentoff’s heyday, the privilege of having an editorial column came with the expectation that the journalist be informed, rather than simply parroting press releases. Defending the First Amendment, Hentoff says that he believes living in a culture that protects free speech not only provides Holocaust deniers the right to speak lies but also gives the rest of us the responsibility to answer false speech with well–reasoned, documented truth.
The film is not a hagiography. It describes Hentoff ending his marriage with casual ruthlessness because he has found someone else he would rather be with. One wonders amidst all the testimonials from jazz fans about the writer’s greatness whether professional success came at the cost of personal isolation.
But those ambiguities are part of the film’s strength, and it is the better for showing its subject at his worst as well as his best. America’s free-speech champion wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Kenneth R. Morefield is an Associate Professor of English at Campbell University. He is the editor of Faith and Spirituality in Masters of World Cinema, Volumes I & II, and the founder of 1More Film Blog.