Inside Llewyn Davis
"Inside Llewyn Davis" is the most satisfyingly diabolical cinematic structure that the Coens have ever contrived, and that's just one reason that I suspect it…
Omer M. Mozaffar lectures across Chicago, teaching courses on religion, literature, history and film. He has given well over a thousand talks on Islam since 9/11.
In 2009, Roger Ebert named him as one of his “Far Flung Correspondents.” In 2011, the Graham School of the University of Chicago honored him with an “Excellence in Teaching Award” in Humanities, Arts and Sciences. He is a lifelong Chicagoan, involving himself in various educational, social service and charitable projects.
As we race further and faster toward a global war between Christians and Muslims, and as we feel compelled to choose sides, I have to think back to my childhood. One of the blessings of my youth is that my parents raised me in the simple, small life of the South Suburbs of Chicago. When we landed, the overwhelming majority of South Asian immigrants took residence in the North and West sides. The blessing is not that I was raised away from most other Pakistanis and Indians. Rather, that I grew up in a town that boldly, humbly calls itself a "Community of Churches." It is a small town that banned all business on Sundays and prohibited any liquor sales any time of the day or week. And, what becomes more important is that when watching a film like Ridley Scott's "Kingdom of Heaven" (2005), I remember my wonderful neighbors, childhood friends, and teachers far more than I remember the television and internet bigots who today masquerade as Christians, no matter how many of them there seem to be.
I love the Dark Knight Trilogy for one simple reason: it gave me the permission that I didn't know I was looking for to dislike all the rest of the Superhero movies. The high point of my dislike came in the highly ambitious "The Avengers" of this past summer. Don't get the wrong idea: as far as superhero movies go, it is one of the best, or at least it is one of the biggest. But something was wrong. It suffers from the same thing that the whole genre has suffered from. First and foremost, we are watching a bunch of costumed adults pretending that they're children in an expensive suburban Daycare. Second, the genre has otherwise exhausted itself to the point of exciting ritual. Third, the movies in the Dark Knight trilogy are solid and smart entertainment (though not without their flaws).
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Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" (1997) is the story of a preacher who believes he has unique permission to phone call the Divine. As is the case with such preachers, the rules of goodness and morality seem to apply to everyone else before they apply to him. Meaning, he is above the law until he gets frightened for breaking the law. So, his combination of impious exhilaration, impatient devotion, and self-righteous rage reveals a man in sunglasses, open palms, and fiery sermons, who plants trees while burning bridges. I love this movie as much as I despise its central character. This movie exists only because of its central character.
I've never been good with small talk. In those corporate conferences with high ceilings and manufactured friendships, I used to admire those high-speed networkers who spun small talk and smooth talk as they worked a room. I don't play golf. I don't drink booze. I'm a fair weather sports fan. If you were to stand alone in an elevator with me, you'd probably hear me breathe as I stared at the floor. Further, if you want to kill an otherwise lively conversation among a bunch of decreasingly sober corporate executives in ill-fitted khakis, sport coats, and crooked "Hi My Name is" name-tags, then make the mistake that I keep making: tell them that you're an expert on religion. The crowd in front of you will split apart faster than the Red Sea. And, perhaps that is why I was never invited by my colleagues to go on those weekend warrior trips, like the characters in John Boorman's forty year old "Deliverance" (1972). This is the story of four confident suburban businessmen looking to raft to the bottom of a river. Along the way, the experience pounds the hell out of them.
A few years ago, while sitting in the mosque during a Friday sermon, I noticed a man in the center of the second row. This is an octagonal mosque with bare white walls. On the outside, its bluish brick and yellow dome consciously invoke the Dome of the Rock, which itself, incidentally is not a mosque. This man was sitting on the blue carpet with the rest of us, about six feet away from the preaching Imam, yet interestingly, he was not looking at him. The Imam was dressed in a white thobe, white skull cap, and that contrasted his thick jet-black beard. Instead, the man of salt-and-pepper beard was staring at the giant projection of this Imam on a screen above. I don't remember what the Imam was speaking about that day, which might explain why I was probably staring curiously at this man as he stared at the live video projection of the preacher standing right in front of him. But, for reasons I will explain below, that moment comes to mind when I think of Ridley Scott's "Prometheus" (2012).
This prickly film haunts me. I am now older than James Dean, Marilyn Monroe, Jimi Hendrix, and Malcolm X. I am at that age where the infinite world of my childhood bedroom is now replaced by a complicated mass of interwoven needs, wants, and concerns. The soundtrack of my youth is a summer of wind blowing through fragile leaves, with katydids buzzing along. The rattling taps of rain on our roof has now given way to the plastic clicking of this keyboard and various other mechanical monsters. Under it all is an ongoing hiss of noise. I also sometimes fall into that trap of looking at today through the telescope of an idealized yesterday; that outlook is a slick valley that is difficult to climb out of and easy to slide back into. Jack Nicholson in Sean Penn's"The Pledge" (2001) is likewise watching the world change. More than that, he is watching his world slip away from him.
I have a friend who promised himself over a decade ago never to be at the service of his career, and rather, that his career should be at his service. The result is that his wife left him, his family looks down on him, he earns a fraction of what his peers earn--a fraction of what his aptitude would dictate (I think he's a genius). He takes most of his jobs on contract, spanning very short periods of time. And, he is one of the happiest, most calm people I know; at least he seems content. In contrast, J.C. Chandor's "Margin Call" (2011) is the story of a group of high-powered bankers getting set to lose their jobs, and perhaps more.
Every family has that playful uncle loved for his cuddly silliness. He is that uncle who is a few syllables beyond eccentric, who does not quite follow the rules of appropriate conduct. Kids love him while his peers look down on him. For Bollywood cinema, that beloved uncle is one of Bollywood's most loved ensemble pictures, Manmohan Desai's "Amar Akbar Anthony" (1977). It is easily one of the most beloved of all Bollywood films. It is a long melodrama, an action movie, a screwball comedy, a romance, a con film, a religious devotion, and, of course, a musical.
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Do we teach our young people to dream in the way we used to dream? I feel a sadness as I look at the long faces of so many undergrads. In their expressions, there is a resignation towards, rather, a skepticism of, rather, a fear of the murky future. Have we lost the motivation, passion and, yes, romance of our counterparts from the 1960s, believing that with enough determination we could change the world into a better place?
Watching Mark Kitchell's "Berkeley in the Sixties," (1990) I'm thinking the contrary, that maybe things have not changed. We might look at the activism of the 1960s with nostalgia, thinking that the activists knew exactly what they were doing, but we see that the participants were discovering the process as it unfolded before them. In any case, this is one of the great documentaries of American dissent.
I find it easy and necessary to forgive the sources of my wounds. Most of them. I find it impossible, however, to forgive others for wounds inflicted upon my loved ones - especially my friends, siblings, children, and parents - even when the victims themselves are forgiving. But, most of all, I'm often imprisoned by my own remorse for the real and perceived impact my choices have had on others. Remorse is a vicious debt collector that knocks on the door to my heart on its own erratic schedule. Such is the case with Will Smith in Gabriele Muccino's "Seven Pounds" (2008).