Monday, January 12, 2009

Cat Man Talking

Last night I watched "Dead Man Walking," figuring I would not enjoy it -- the economy and world affairs are grim enough -- but feeling it was my responsibility to engage with some serious examples of cinema art. Since I'll be teaching this arts reviewing/writing class, I need to do some faux reviewing of my own, if only to hone my empathy with the struggles of my students.

And they will struggle. It's a sub-literate age. Some are born sub-literate, and some of us have sub-literacy thrust upon us as all these images and quick hits (blogs, anyone?) short circuit our intellectual capacity, jumping us from exposure to something to feeling something about it without ever bothering to put that feeling into words.

I speak from personal experience here. I can hardly put two words gotether anymore.

So I watched the movie as an exercise. And loved it. And the exegesis of love is the hardest of all critical tasks.

Let me just say this. Call it acting or simply being, I thought Susan Sarandon was utterly convincing as nun who believed that you really can despise the sin but love the sinner. Whatever love means. As Sarandon presented Sister Prejean, it seemed to mean faith backed with intellectual and emotional toughness when faced with a murderer and rapist who had done horrible things and who didn't want to take emotional and intellectual responsibility for those acts.

That's a flat and pompous way of talking. I'm just saying that Sarandon presented what I would call goodness with steadiness and credibility. Clearly, the movie was against the death penalty -- though the script didn't shrink from portraying the horror of the crime and the pain of the victims' families, and you could certainly read the film as suggesting that the execution of the killer was the best thing possible for the victims' families and that only the imminence of death made the killer's redemption possible. Christianity is all about virtuous death, about martyrdom, you know, and the worse the crime the sweeter the forgiveness.

But that was the least interesting part of it -- to me. What got me was the suggestion -- through characterization, not through argument -- that goodness, faith and common sense can go together, that religious faith and love are credible.

Sarandon's performance was an embodied argument. A man of no faith is always fascinated by its possibility, even when you know it was just artifice, multiple takes, method acting, lord knows what thoughts going on behind the facade of nuance in Sarandon's face.
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