Review
Culture
9 min read

Love letters to cinema

Yaroslav Walker is warmed, bored, and then revived as he reviews The Fabelmans, Babylon, and Empire of Light.

Yaroslav is assistant priest at Holy Trinity, Sloane Square, London.

A cinematic view of a child holding an image that lights up their face.
Sammy Fabelman, played by Mateo Zoryan Francis-DeFord, falls in love with cinema.
Universal Pictures.

This year has seen the release of three very different ‘love-letters’ to cinema. The Fabelmans sees pioneer and veteran of the Hollywood blockbuster, Steven Spielberg, baring his soul as co-writer Tony Kushner pieces together tableaux from Spielberg’s childhood to create a semi-autobiographical project. Mark Kermode once described watching a Spielberg film like sinking into a comfortable leather armchair. Peter Ackroyd called him ‘an extraordinary technician’ whose scenes are ‘as smooth and shiny as lip gloss’. This is the master at work, reminding us just how good he is. The film looks great…it looks gorgeous! From the opening scenes when we see young Sammy Fabelman use his Hanukkah train set to recreate a scene from DeMille’s Greatest Show on Earth (the camera getting down low to follow and witness the terrible toy crash from every angle), through to the final shot of an adult Sammy walking into a hopeful and unknown horizon, Janusz Kamiński’s cinematography and Spielberg’s direction are superb.

In spite of the two and a half hour runtime the film never drags. Every set piece arrives, does its turn, and gives way to the next elegantly. We follow young Sammy and his family as they start in New Jersey and then move home, first to Arizona and then to California. Young Sammy discovers an all-encompassing passion for filmmaking which helps him deal with the many moves and upheavals that come his way.

'The man is able to communicate the fullness of the interior life of any character in a single breath.'

The script is warm and funny and plays the audience like a fiddle - but what else would you expect? The cast all seem delighted to be there. Michelle Williams is wild and ‘artsy’ without ever hamming it up. The young stars turn in solid performances, and Judd Hirsch and David Lynch drop by to chew some scenery and remind us what old-fashioned star power is. However, despite everyone being on top form, Paul Dano takes the day. His face permanently set in a creased expression that is both serious and loving, his entire posture giving a warm glow of empathy, his very breathing draws you into his world and his cares…I’m not joking. Within the last year I have heard Dano exhale as the psychotic Riddler in The Batman and as a heart-broken father and husband in The Fabelmans - the man is able to communicate the fullness of the interior life of any character in a single breath.

All that being said, ‘smooth and shiny’ really sums up the film. It's good looking and entertaining, but forgettable and lacking substance. Hirsch gives an Oscar-baiting speech about obsession and creativity and the battle between art and family, and there is horrific depiction of antisemitism…but these moments just sit in the middle of the film like little islands of profundity.

What this is, is the master-craftsman indulging himself in style. And you know what? Fair play. You should go and see the film. Go and see one of the makers of modern cinema do his thing. It’s a little empty and self-indulgent, but hey…this is the director of Jaws, E.T., Raiders, Schindler’s List, etc (the list goes on and on), he gets to do this; he’s earned it!

3.5 stars

Babylon

A movie star flicks their long hair, backlit by a strong light
Babylon's Nellie LeRoy, played by Margot Robbie, is a 1920s Holllywood It Girl.

Smooth and shiny are also apt words to apply to Damien Chazelle’s Babylon. Others are putrid, dull, and loathsome. In Babylon we are transported to another world, where Hollywood is on the brink of talking-pictures, a party isn’t a party without drugs and sex and elephant dung, and where everyone is a moral vacuum sucking all goodness and beauty into the gaping maw of self-obsession. The film purports to follow Diego Calva’s Manny as he works his way from elephant fondler to studio exec. On the way he falls in love with rising star Nellie LaRoy (she added the ‘La’ herself) and has a brief stint working for Brad Pitt’s leading-man Jack Conrad.

That’s it…that’s all I can say. There’s your summary of three-hours of screen time and three hours of my Saturday night when instead I could have been slowly pulling out my own teeth. The first act or so is a booze-fuelled display of orgiastic excess that wants you to think its self-aware but is really just pornographically gleeful. The middle is a damned slog culminating in a final third which dares to ape (and I don’t care if it intends to, because as far as I’m concerned it does) Boogie Nights (via Dante) - an astronomically superior film which actually has something to say about excess and obsession and  corruption and libertinism.

Every now and then it tries to trick you into seeing something of substance - Jean Smart’s gossip columnist delivers a diverting if vapid speech about the lasting power of art over human ambition and popularity, and Brad Pitt is constantly shouting about how film is not a low art form and really means something - but don’t be fooled. The film is a nihilistic chasm and by the end I really came to loathe it, which now seems ridiculous because it’s so crashingly boring that it really isn’t worth getting upset about. And if I sound like a young-fogey moralist, the film’s black hole where any sort of conscience or soul should be isn’t its worst crime in my opinion. The film is dull. Don’t waste your time.

1 star

Empire of Light

A couple stand on a seafront watching fireworks explode over a beach and pier. Credut
Empire of Light sheds new light on Margate.

After the brutal combination of anxiety and boredom in Babylon, Empire of Light came as a welcome restorative - like a cup of tea the morning after. A calm and thoughtful little film, which sees Sam Mendes doing what he does best: being empathetic. From American Beauty right through to 1917, Mendes has yet to direct a film where I don’t feel he cares about his characters. I don’t think he always likes them, but he really knows them and cares about them.

Olivia Coleman’s Hilary is a quiet and reserved woman in middle-age who works in a Margate cinema. She doesn’t seem to have much about her, although we start to see little cracks in the mundane facade: the odd smile, the odd stare, the sudden explosion of jealous anger. There’s a backstory there, but we only have clues. Her life changes when handsome young Stephen is hired. Stephen is outgoing, charming, intelligent, and sensitive. He and Hilary strike up an unlikely romance which helps both characters open up and connect but faces many challenges, from racism (Stephen is black and the far-right are menacing Margate) to failing mental-health.

It’s lovely, but it could have been so much more. It has a sedate pace, and Olivia Colman (when isn’t she excellent!?) does a lot of heavy lifting with Hilary - a character who in lesser hands would  have been a caricature but whom Colman presents as nuanced and engaging - but it tries to incorporate too much. It looks at loneliness, it looks at middle age, at a slowly declining coastal town, and at the power of cinema, and racism, and mental health… but only ever a snapshot. A film of such serenity - in no small part due to Roger Deakins’ sumptuous cinematography - can’t afford to have quite so many balls in the air. Empire of Light has too much under its placid surface - perhaps a result of Sam Mendes having sole control of the script. I wanted to grab hold of just one idea and run with it. Still, it is a lovely film. Well worth a watch. Also, Toby Jones…Toby Jones is a reason to see any film.

3.5 stars

The loving presentation of the power of cinema

Three very different films united in their loving presentation of the power of cinema - discovering movie-making as a child, being part of the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the quiet joy of the local seaside cinema. They are united, also, in that each centres around characters searching for meaning. Sammy Fabelman is both traumatised and delighted by cinema at a very young age, and then desperately clings to it as a way to find meaning and solace in a difficult world, unwittingly reconciling and exemplifying his parents’ best qualities (his father’s work-ethic and his mother’s creativity). Manny, Nellie, and Jack are all seeking to define their lives. Jack wants to make a lasting impact on art, Nellie wants to find acceptance, and Manny wants be part of ‘something bigger’. In a much smaller way, Hilary and Stephen find in each other another lost soul looking for answers (Stephen the failed student, and Hilary the failed academic?).

The Fabelmans, Babylon, and Empire of Light all have deeper meaning as a question and cinema as an answer. This is obvious in the first two, but even Empire throws this into the mix with mawkish (but expertly delivered) monologues in which Toby Jones’ projectionist waxes lyrical about the magic of film projection, and how technical skill and hard graft and celluloid and a love of one’s craft are what matters. Towards the end of the film Hilary seems to turn a corner when, for the first time, she watches a full film at work and is enchanted and delighted.

A hunger for meaning

All three films lay bare a fundamental truth about the human condition. We are all searching for ‘meaning’, ‘solidity’, ‘truth’ on which we can rely and around which we can build our lives. We live in a culture which more and more suggests that there is no objective truth or meaning, and so this hunger for ‘meaning’ gives us the opportunity to define our lives ourselves and create our own truth and our own meaning of life. All three films also demonstrate just how damaging this can be.

In Babylon it’s obvious; characters create their own meaning and it ends in suicide, drug-overdose, and a figurative descent through the circles of hell (where people still know how to party!?) and exile. The film tries to end with the suggestion that all this pain and suffering in some way led to the brilliance of Singing in the Rain… It didn’t. Empire’s empathy doesn’t stop it from raising some uncomfortable questions. Hilary’s search for meaningful experience with Stephen could be seen as grooming and coercion, and an abuse of power. Toby Jones’ monologues are delivered all while we see a photo of his tragically estranged son in the background. Sammy Fabelman finds solace and meaning in film, while being tremendously self-involved to the point where his sister has to chastise him for his selfishness.

All human beings feel this urge to find definition and meaning. Our cinematic offerings seem to view it as a bug, Christianity knows it as a feature. They see it as a challenge to be overcome, Christianity knows it to be a gift. It is through this longing for meaning - for something more than ourselves - that we can know something of God. St Augustine summed it up beautifully when he confessed of the human condition that ‘our hearts are restless till they rest in thee’. As we long for meaning, we are invited to find it, not create it.

We are invited by Jesus Christ into something bigger than ourselves. But that bigger thing isn’t something we ‘lose’ ourselves in; we ‘find’ ourselves in the bigger reality of God, and as we find our restless hearts coming to peace in God we truly begin to see the world around us and our place in it.

Review
Culture
Music
1 min read

Beyoncé’s breaking barriers

Cowboy Carter sees the star crack her whip in the temple of the music industry.

Krish is a social entrepreneur partnering across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He founded The Sanctuary Foundation.

Side by side, two rodeo riders on horses trot toward the camera. One is Beyonce, the other a cowboy
Beyoncé at the Houston Rodeo.
Beyoncé.com

I sometimes wake up in a cold sweat with flashbacks of one terrible swimming lesson at school. I had accidentally forgotten to forget my kit, so was forced to face not only the freezing water, but the spouting of ignorant prejudice from my teacher.  

“Kandiah, you’re useless,” he said, as I heaved myself out of the pool at the end of the lesson. “Although I guess it’s not your fault you can’t float like the white children. Your bones are heavier. Look at the Olympics – you never see black and Asian swimmers, do you?” 

I opened and closed my mouth a few times, like the fish out of water I suppose I was, but inside I was seething.  

Being told I couldn’t do something made me all the more determined to do it. Back in I jumped.  

Last week, in another splash aimed at proving people wrong, Beyoncé’s magnificent album “Cowboy Carter” became the first album by a black woman to top the country charts. 

On her Instagram feed she said: “the criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me.” 

It was a brave move. Back in 2016, she had received heated and hate-filled reactions when she performed her song Daddy Issues at the 50th Country Music Association Awards with the country music group Chicks, formerly known as the Dixie Chicks. Many country music fans were outraged, calling it an act of cultural appropriation. One response on social media put it starkly: “SHE DOES NOT BELONG!!”.  

But as a Texan who had been brought up around country music, Beyoncé disagreed. She would spend the next five years planning her response. Cowboy Carter proves her country credentials beyond all doubt. It’s not only about the music. It also does three important things that show the world what can be done when faced with barriers of prejudice and ignorance. 

She honours the past

The album is clearly an act of tribute to trailblazing country artists before her. Beyoncé included notable guest appearances and feature tracks and took the unusual step of sending flowers to all who had inspired her.  

Beyoncé sent flowers to Mickey Guyton, the first black female artist to be nominated for a Grammy Award in the Country category. She also sent flowers to K. Michelle and featured Tanner Adell, Brittney Spencer and Reyna Roberts on the Cowboy Carter track Blackbird, a song that Paul McCartney wrote as a response to the case of the Little Rock Nine, a group of African-American schoolchildren initially barred from attending a previously racially segregated school in Arkansas. It took the direct intervention of then President Dwight Eisenhower in 1957 to make it possible for these children to attend their school. She also included guest appearances from country music royalty Dolly Parton and Linda Martell, who both introduce songs on the album. Dolly’s introduction to Beyoncé’s reworking of Jolene is particularly poignant: “Hey Queen B it’s Dolly P”.  

The song Jolene sticks faithfully to the guitar riff from the original, but the words and the tone of this song are completely different. Dolly’s original Jolene was begging another woman not to take her man from her. But Beyoncé will have none of that. She is full of threat and menace:

“I’m warnin’ you, don’t come for my man… don’t take the chance because you think you can.”  

As Beyoncé pays her dues to the greats that have gone before, she also offers a very different picture. She can recognise the past, and yet not be imprisoned by it. She can appreciate those who have laid the foundations for a new era, unbound by cruel stereotypes.  

She challenges the present 

We don’t have to look far to see the way that western society is splintering. It is becoming harder to find common ground, harder to move from one tribe to another.  Beyoncé’s album is political in that it is deliberately breaking down a wall and smashing a division. She refuses to accept that there are no-go areas for people of colour. The album feels like Beyoncé’s famous baseball bat from Lemonade, but this time it isn’t smashing cars, but preconceptions and prejudices instead. 

There’s anger in this record. The first song is “American Requiem” and includes the line:  

“They used to say I spoke ‘too country’./ And the reaction came,/ said I wasn’t country ’nough / If that ain’t country / I don’t know what is?” 

Full of confidence and rage she asks over a bed of country music guitar chords:  

“Can you hear me? / Can you stand me?”  

Beyoncé does not disguise the ironies. The fresh anger and challenge weaves into classic forms and tropes of country music. The artist that some wanted to exclude from the genre tops the charts. The pop icon becomes an iconoclast.  The smashing of divisions makes way for the building of something new.   

She opens a door for the future

It is within living memory of many that black people were prohibited from sitting at the front of a public bus or drinking from the same water fountain as white people. Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter is not just a smash hit it is a smash down of the boundaries of genre that had excluded her and others. With this boundary smashed the opportunity is opened for others too.  

For example, there was a recent stand-out performance at the Grammy awards watched by millions around the world – the duet between the country star Luke Combs and Tracy Chapman. Luke, a young white man, is part of a new generation of country singers with a huge following. The legendary black artist Tracy Chapman recently turned 60. The joyful performance was particularly touching as the two of them looked genuinely delighted to be singing together. The video went viral and lead to a huge uplift in Chapman’s sales. The song Fast Car rocketed to the top of the charts some 36 years after it was first released.  
 
Cowboy Carter is Beyoncé using her voice and talent to push back against prejudice and push forward to a new era. She is cracking her whip in the temple of the music industry. She is driving out those who have commandeered the space that rightly belongs to those from any and all backgrounds.  She is righteously angry at the injustice. She is declaring that country music be reclaimed as a meeting place for all nations to enjoy.  

When Jesus unleashed the whip against the tables of the moneychangers in the temple who were excluding the non-Jews the space rightly belonged to, he fiercely declared: “My father’s house is to be a house of prayer for all the nations.” He was not only breaking the barriers of the past but ushering in a new future, a future where everyone could gather together before God on equal footing. Jesus would eventually die on a cross to ensure this free access to God was available to everyone - wherever they were from, whatever they had done and whatever they looked like.  

I welcome this album by Beyoncé in that spirit of challenging prejudices, breaking down barriers, and clearing the decks for a new future equally available to all.  

If only I could have whipped myself into shape, I believe I could have been the Cowboy Carter of the swimming world forty years ago.  

 

Beyoncé in her own words

“Ain’t got time to waste, I got art to make/ I got love to create on this holy night/ They won’t dim my light, all these years I fight.”  

16 Carriages 

“Say a prayer for what has been / We'll be the ones that purify our father's sins / American Requiem / Them old ideas (yeah) / Are buried here (yeah) / Amen (amen) 

 Amen