“Now that’s a name I’ve not heard in a long time”

A fairly famous scene from a fairly famous movie that I have long loved:

What I particularly love about this scene comes at the point where Luke asks about “Obi-Wan Kenobi” (at 3:15 on the video above). There’s a beautiful synergy between Alec Guinness’ facial reaction (before he says any lines), the way the soundtrack kicks in, and even the way the camera moves ever so slightly out and up, suggesting the impact on Obi-Wan of hearing that name. The soundtrack at this point is wonderful, suggesting (to my ears at least) an air of something both exciting and mysterious. Even as a child, I knew this moment was special.

This scene does a great job of helping to evoke the existence of a wider universe (something the original Star Wars in general is great at, hinting at a much wider universe than it’s telling us about). But more importantly, it gives the right feel and weight to this moment, because this is the point at which something mythic kicks in. Sure, exciting stuff has happened (the opening, the Droids escape and so on), but this is the point at which the story isn’t just about a Galactic Empire and political rebels, but the force, the Jedi and everything else enters the story. And this is the point that Luke himself receives his “call to adventure”.

It’s no secret that Star Wars has heavy overlap and was likely directly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s ideas of the monomyth or “Hero’s Journey”. In this schema, the “call to adventure” is precisely the point at which the hero learns (often via a wise mentor) of something beyond their mundane world and is summoned to act in this new realm. The call is often refused at first (as indeed Luke tries to too), but once that call is accepted, there is no going back to that former world. And – while there is more to come right after this scene, including Obi-Wan telling Luke the truth (“from a certain point of view”) about his father and presenting him with his lightsaber, this little scene manages to capture the atmosphere of such a moment, the point at which Luke learns of a new, mysterious world and begins his hero’s journey. It’s a fantastic moment that continues to stand out.

And then I remember with some amusement that this was made by the same man who gave us the prequels and Howard the Duck

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“The ox knoweth his owner”

I’m really having trouble comprehending it’s December already. This year has gone by so fast, and with such unexpected (and in some cases undesirable) twists, that I can’t quite compute that the year is nearly drawing to a close while I am in such an unanticipated place. So I guess on with the Christmas videos!

I love the film Ben Hur so much: while fictional, and obviously including other things, I particularly like it’s depiction of Christ (who is shown more in the effects he has on others). The first scene is a fairly standard depiction of the nativity, but one I enjoy for all that. One interesting detail can be seen from 2:25 onwards, as the wise men enter the stable they pass between a donkey and an ox, which briefly grabs our attention though it’s lowing. Many traditional depictions of the nativity include a donkey and ox, but this is not a detail drawn from the Gospels, but actually from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib: but Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider.

Early Christians saw this verse as applying to Christ, and so the donkey and ox found their way into Christian iconography, a place which they have continued to claim until the present day.


Incidentally, while writing this I came across what looks like an interesting website on Christian iconography in art at http://christianiconography.info. The page on the nativity discusses a range of details (including the above) that you’ll find often find not only in Medieval artwork, but in modern depictions as well.

Unbreakable

This post is a break from my usual topics, something that’s likely to happen a bit more often now that my mind has more freedom to wander. In truth I’d wanted to write a few posts about some film scenes anyway, and I’ve discussed at least one before. While I have no love for self-consciously artistic films, or for Oscar bait, I enjoy films, and love it when a film, though good writing and cinematography, manages to mean something more than just entertainment, and speak to timeless and profound things. And sometimes that’s found in unexpected places. It doesn’t seem to be found in the aforementioned artistic films, perhaps because modern art is too attached to the present, and too intent on subversion, to speak about transcendental things that build up.

I’d in fact originally thought of this topic as a series named “great scenes in bad movies”, but then I realised some of the movies I was thinking of weren’t that bad, and the film I’m discussing in this post is actually very very good: it’s just the product of a director who has also produced a lot of bad bad films. Unbreakable is by no means a perfect film, but it is a great one, and one I personally believe is M. Night Shyamalan’s best film, one which with time can be seen to outshine Sixth Sense, let alone the many duds Shyamalan has produced since. This scene here is one of its highlights. As a fair warning, this post will contain spoilers (although I’ll avoid the film’s biggest), but in any case the film was released 17 years ago, so if you haven’t watched it your really should, especially with a sequel now on the horizon!

So to recap (or if you don’t mind spoilers), Unbreakable tells the story of a man named David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who has a dead-end job, a failing marriage and every sign of some form of depression, who somehow survives a train crash that kills everyone else aboard without any injury. He falls in with Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson), a comic-book dealer with severe brittle-bone disease, who is a bit of a kook who believes comic books express some ancient truth, and that individuals like David may be invulnerable to injury and disease. Under Elijah’s rather stalkerish prodding, David discovers that he has indeed never suffered any injury or illness, possesses extraordinary strength, and can mentally pick up on the criminal acts of people he comes into personal contact with. His only apparent weakness appears to be water, which is suggested to be his Achilles heel by Elijah. Increasingly aware of his abilities, he follows Elijah’s suggestion to seek an opportunity to act upon his abilities, and discovers an evil janitor (the orange-suited man), who has invaded a home, murdered the father, and is holding the rest of the family captive. The scene comes in when David has entered the home, intent on intervening:

The bit that particularly gets my attention is the 35 seconds from 02:35 onwards. After falling onto a canvas covered swimming pool and being rescued by the very kids he is trying to save, you see him slowly clamber out of the pool. As he does so he is hunched over, the same height as the children (slightly out of focus in the background), small and vulnerable. Then, in perfect coordination with the majestic soundtrack, he rises. The children suddenly come into focus, but now appear to be looking up in awe at this figure that now appears to dwarf them. If it hadn’t dawned on the viewer earlier, then they realise at this point: this is not a psychological drama, it’s about a superhero.

Quentin Tarantino aptly suggested that the marketing of the film should have had the tag-line “what if Superman was here on earth, and didn’t know he was Superman?”. This is the point at which he, and the audience, fully realise he is superman. And it is so perfectly portrayed in just 35 seconds of film without dialogue.

Yet, while the protagonist is indeed physically superhuman (as the orange suited man finds to his cost), I think this little sequence also shows another aspect of his heroism. While he is indeed immune to injury (save any water-based attacks), I believe it is not this alone that lies behind the title of the movie. We see him here faced with his kryptonite, one which save for the intervention of those he is about to save would have killed him. We see him here bent over, weak, reduced in stature. And yet he rises once again, and becomes the hero that is needed, because it is not only his body that is invulnerable. Despite setback, weakness and near-death, he rises once again because it is his spirit that is unbreakable.