January 13, 2012

The Nun's Story (film)

1959 film. Directed by Fred Zinnemann. Written by Robert Anderson. Based on the novel by Kathryn Hulme.

Related Reviews:
Nuns are a fascinating breed of individual. Dedicating themselves to absolute obedience and piety in the face of their god, they live quiet yet rigorous lives where they flow through their services in a clockwork fashion of near anonymity. It's an unusual life. As both the book and film state, it's unnatural as it goes against human impulses and will in the face of absolute devotion. It's not a life for everyone.

Which brings us to Sister Luke (Audrey Hepburn), formerly Gabrielle van der Mal, a young Belgian woman who entered the convent to escape a failed engagement and, hopefully, to become a nurse in the Congo missionaries. It's a choice she's made peace with and most of her family, while a bit hesitant, is strongly supportive as she enters the convent with high hopes. As with the book, the film is a window into this world as we see the rituals, the initiations and mental tests, the gradual training that turn women into nuns. Personal bonds are frowned upon, culminating when Luke and another sister are reprimanded for seeking each other's console, the last incident of which is the other woman deciding to leave the sisterhood. Like any institution, there is a weeding out process, but it's never done with malice, just an odd sense of practical inevitability. "You can lie to your sisters, but you can never lie to god or to yourself." If people stay, they flourish and contribute. If they leave, the order moves on.

This isn't a film about faith or god, it's about the people who have faith and the institution they've organized around it. It's an old order, one that's built its rules and foundations over centuries. The film captures this sense in its quiet grace and dignity, but also captures the sadness and sacrifice, and even acknowledges the fallibility of a human run organization as different convents have slightly different ways of doing things. One Reverend Mother asks Sister Luke to fail an exam just to keep a struggling sister from feeling bad for not doing as well. Another says that was the wrong request to make as that would have deprived society of Luke's skills as a nurse. It's instances like these, or others where she's told to feel guilt and regret over actions that she doesn't see as wrong, that start to eat at her and make her question the life she's chosen for herself. It's only in giving herself to this organization that she finds her independence.

Audrey Hepburn is a legend for a reason, and she continues to demonstrate it here. She perfectly balances the fragility and strength of Sister Luke as she goes through the training, bounces from house to house, becomes a skilled nurse in bloody surgeries, is violently assaulted, and arrives in the Congo so fiercely dedicated to help, only to spend half her time there recovering from tuberculosis. All of the other nuns are portrayed by fantastic character actors - Edith Evans, Peggy Ashcroft, Beatrice Straight, Patricia Collinge, Rosalie Crutchley, the list goes on - but they float by, disappearing and reappearing, and we never really know who these characters are beyond what little we can make of their actions and personalities in the moment. That's not a complaint, merely the truth of being a nun.

Zinneman's direction of this film is meticulous, intelligent, and sweepingly intimate as he keeps the various chapters of Sister Luke's life flowing in and out of one another. Religion is a huge part of the picture, but he never sentimentalizes it, merely treating it as an aspect of the people involved. We see them pray, recite, and prostrate themselves before crosses, but in a way that's merely witnessing them in their chosen practice, without either support or judgment. Its very analytical in a way, stepping back to show us the bare facts of this life, then pushing in on Sister Luke as we see the meaning and lessons and questions she takes from each event. Even when Sister Luke starts to break away and challenge the views around her, it doesn't treat them judgmentally, nor does she. It's merely a lifestyle that's increasingly at odds with her individual life. And there's a beautiful framing device of her hair as it's cut before disappearing beneath the habit of a full fledged sister, where it remains unseen for around 90 minutes or so until that second skin is peeled away and the changed color of the hair finally hits us with how many years have passed in Sister Luke's life.

There's other great touches, like a sudden murder, the serenely horrific treatment of screaming mental patients, a climactic confessional, the meetings with Sister Luke's father (the steady Dean Jagger), recognition of Sister Luke's genuine skills and will being dismissed as pride, a visit to a genuine leper village, Peter Finch as a brusque doctor who challenges Sister Luke to rise above her own imposed limitations, the gradual onset of WWII through explosions and gunfire that suddenly aren't so distant, the brief motif of a gold pen, or the final moment, equally haunting and inspiring, as Gabrielle sets out to the next unwritten chapter of her life.

This is a bit rambly, but that's because it's hard to find something to say when everything is so damn well made. The Nun's story was nominated for eight Academy Awards back in the day, and it deserved every single one of them. With they exception of a few moments in the Congo where it's a little too "look at these savage natives, thank goodness we white folk made their lives so much better", I'd go so far as to call it a perfect film. Y'know what, no, I'll go ahead and call it perfect as those moments, while questionable, have the same honest ring as questionable moments of convent life, so they may very well have been intentional as a bit of commentary. I don't know.

This film works. It's a masterpiece. It needs to be seen. Seriously, go see it now. Go. Yes, you. Watch it!

January 7, 2012

[Unfulfilled Hopes] Night Skies - The Absentee Father of Spielberg's Amblin Entertainment

Previously published at Hope Lies.

During his research for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, director Steven Spielberg latched onto the story of the Kelly-Hopkinsville encounter, where a family farm allegedly came under attack by a strange group of small creatures following the appearance of lights in the sky. Spielberg saw the story as a potential spinoff/sequel to his primary film, an acknowledgment of the darker side of UFO lore in the form of a claustrophobic "isolated home under siege" horror movie. In 1979, Spielberg saw the festival premiere of John Sayles' directorial debut, The Return of the Seccarus Seven, and hired Sayles to write a script based on his loose treatment, titled Night Skies.

The story is set in a rugged patch of mountain country, where an unnamed family runs a cattle ranch a few miles from town. The father, Ed, is worrying about his cattle after a neighbor lost a cow in a growing string of mutilations in the area. The mother, Ruth, sets out to be a token housewife, but often gets lost in zealous religious fervor. The elder son, Watt, is tired of his daily chores and the lack of recognition when he gets around to doing them well, and is thinking about joining the air force just so he can get out of this hole. The daughter, Tess, has tremendous talent on a piano, but she's passing up a scholarship for a music school because she's the only one with the patience to care for her younger brother, Jaybird, a mentally handicapped boy who's unable to connect to the world except through geometric patterns. And then there's Gram, a sharp-as-a-tack old granny who has no fun because she's too busy calling it like she sees it in some of the script's funniest one-liners.

January 6, 2012

Star Trek: Galilea #1 "Beginnings"

Star Trek: Galilea was a fan audio drama series I took part in. I was a member of the writing staff throughout the series, and played Commander Valkon.

Check it out here.

January 1, 2012

The Nun's Story (novel)

1956 novel. Written by Kathryn Hulme.

Related Reviews:
Berlin, the late 1920s. Still heartbroken over a failed engagement (her father didn't approve), Gaby Van der Mal decides to pledge her life to God by becoming a nun. Still able to pursue her goal of medicinal care, the book chronicles the next 17 years of her life as she goes through rigorous training and discipline, attends a university, spends a stretch working in a sanitarium, then fulfils her secret dream of travelling to the Congo to treat natives alongside a famous surgeon. But as the years pass and World War II blooms into existence, she finds her faith and choice of lifestyle increasingly tested.

I'll be completely upfront and honest: I am an atheist who has little to no interest in the workings of organized religion. The same goes for faith, which I don't put much personal stock in. With all that hanging on my back, you'd think I'd crash up against this book like a bus doing 90 straight into a brick wall .... but I was pleasantly surprised. While I don't support religion, there's a structural foundation there I sometimes find interesting to examine, and this is a book that peels back the layers of such orders and disciplines. While I'm not a man of faith, this book isn't about promoting such a mindset, but rather about exploring the people who see the world through those eyes. What makes them tick? What makes them different? What makes them unique and special and respectable?

It all works because of the character of Gaby, now renamed Sister Luke. She isn't just interested in pursuing medicine so she can dab at foreheads and change bedpans, she has an analytical mind that's all about studying chemicals and diseases. Her father is a successful doctor and, despite his rejection of her love driving her into the convent, she still has the passion for scientific learning he instilled in her. And, no, her conflict isn't the expected one of science versus religion - both her and her father were people of deep faith before all of this, after all - but rather that of order and reason versus tradition. The convent is a place of very strict rules, where sometimes you have to sacrifice in order to succeed. Such is the case when a mother superior tells her to fail an important university exam, the one she'd been prepping for over the last few years, all so it'll make another nun feel better about her struggling grades. Humbling oneself is a highly prized thing in this world, but would it truly be God's will that she appease the other nun's vanity? If she decides to go against it and pass the test, will that just make Sister Luke the vain one? It's ethical quandaries like these that she has an increasingly difficult time wrapping her head around, making for a very honest, very compelling lead character that I could relate to the entire way.

And it must be added that she did open my eyes to a lot of the beauty of the practice. The way every nun falls into a perfect place, be it laundry, cooking, studying, teaching, to the point where the convent is like the perfectly timed inner workings of a clock. Or the way that the nuns shy away from personal pride or fame, even as the mother superiors fill their offices with articles about and souvenirs from the sisters' worldly journeys. Or the way they can be so perfectly at peace with their own lives that they die with a simple grace, even when it comes in the form of brutal murder.

But there's still the honesty. Right up front, they admit not every nun will make it through the training. It's neither a judgment against them nor the system, but merely an accepted truth that some people aren't meant for certain lives. Which especially hits home when Sister Luke sees the world around her crumble into war and feels the drive to take action pulling her away from the convent as all her old doubts rise right back to the surface.

A gently honest surprise of a book, Hulme crafts a deeply simple life story around a complex, questioning heroine, and I was fascinated and rewarded the entire way.