Damsel (2018)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 4; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 2

Our star rating (1-5): 4.5

 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things;

there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:41-42

Penelope and the fake Parson. (c) Magnolia Pictures

David and Nathan Zellner manage to upend most of the conventions of the Western genre in this adventurous comedy in the guise of a search and rescue tale. We do not meet up with the damsel of the title until a third of the film has unfolded, during which we learn of the dubious way in which Parson Henry (David Zellner) was “ordained,” and the background of Samuel Alabaster (Robert Pattinson), who has hired the bogus minister to marry Penelope (Mia Wasikowska).

Only after the two have set out from the poor excuse of a town does Samuel reveal that his damsel has been kidnapped by two brothers, so theirs is a rescue mission as well as a matrimonial one. The jelly-spined Henry objects, but Samuel forces him to continue, promising to increase his fee. He has brought with him his guitar, an expensive ring, and a miniature horse named Butterscotch, the latter because his love had once mentioned that she loved the little animals.

What a surprise when the rescue is pulled off by killing one of the brothers and the damsel reveals that only now is she in distress. She had never intended to marry Samuel, preferring to live in isolation with her now dead lover. This rejection triggers a very unexpected reaction, with subsequent events also often surprising us by their unexpectedness and ridiculousness.

There are touches of John Ford and Federico Fellini throughout the film, In regard to the latter, the search, Monument Valley and other vistas, the saloon, and a sudden Indian arrow striking the back of a bad guy. The influence of the latter is seen in the bleak town where a man clad in a barrel laughs outside the saloon, and inside men with grotesque faces leer as they drink and stare at the stranger who walks in. A dwarf sits playing the piano despite his half-length arms.

In the saloon Samuel at first seems like one of those Alan Ladd or Gary Cooper soft-spoken heroes when an ill-tempered bar patron insults him in an obvious attempt to provoke a fight, but this never happens. His rendition of the song he has written for his beloved, “Honeybun,” is so awful that he proves he is no Gene Autry also.

Parson Henry lacks both faith and courage, constantly complaining and striving to escape his circumstances. He describes himself to Native American Zachariah Running Bear (Joseph Billingiere), as a “soulless neophyte of paleface proportions.” Indeed, he is.

Only Penelope evinces any strength, despising her rescuers as weak-willed fools lacking anything worthy of admiration. She is determined to cherish and hang onto her freedom. She is a spiritual descendent of the Mary, whom Jesus said chose “the better part,” the male role of student rather than being relegated always to kitchen duty. In a funny, roundabout way the Zellner brothers demonstrate that strength of character, even in the 1870s Old West, is not a matter of sex, thus making this a rollicking feminist tract.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August 2018 issue of Visual Parables.


Shock and Awe (2018)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 30 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 1; Language 2; Sex/Nudity 1.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open.

Luke 8:17

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Romans 12:2a

If you repeat a lie often enough, people will believe it, and you will even come to believe it yourself.

Think of the press as a great keyboard on which the government can play.

Joseph Goebbels

The two Knight Ridder reporters leading the investigation of the false claims for going to war against Iraq. (c) Vertical Entertainment

The New York Times has for so long been held up as the paragon of great, fearless journalism (remember the ending of Three Days of the Condor?) that it comes as a surprise that in Rob Reiner’s new film it is regarded as a villain, just a step or two above George Bush, Dick Chaney, Osama bin Laden, and Saddam Hussein, thanks to its uncritical acceptance of our government’s case for going to war against Iraq.

Based on a true story, Rob Reiner’s Shock and Awe, borrowing the name of President Bush’s invasion of Iraq, centers on the efforts of the staff of the Knight Ridder Newspapers to discover the truth about the government’s official reason for the pre-emptive war—that Saddam Hussein was developing weapons of mass destruction that threatened the stability of the Middle East and the world.

Even on the first day of the strike on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, the administration began linking the Iraqi dictator with Al Qaeda, a charge that every expert on the Middle East knew was ridiculous because of their long-time enmity. Unfortunately, the reporters of the Times, The Washington Post, and all three TV networks relied on government sources rather than the experts. Only Knight Ridder reporters Warren Strobel (James Marsden) and Jonathan Landay (Woody Harrelson) and their editor John Walcott (Reiner) turned to those who knew and understood Middle Eastern history and Islam.

The reporters begin a round of contacts with government officials. Some of them hang up on him, and others, identified only as “government official,” cautiously confirm that both Bush and Cheney are lying about the intelligence that supposedly confirms their charge against Hussein. Needing contacts at a higher level, Walcott eventually convinces ace Vietnam-era reporter Joseph L. Galloway (Tommy Lee Jones) to join their team. (My review of the film based on Galloway’s book Once We Were Soldiers is in the April 2002 VP.)

At virtually every level the reporters face the charge that they are being unpatriotic in challenging the government’s campaign to persuade the American public to go to war. Not mentioned is made of the Dixie Chicks’ fall from popularity when Natale Maines, two weeks before the invasion, made her two-sentence statement in support of the European protest the impending invasion. Even the Knight Ridder’s own newspaper in Philadelphia refused to run their reports, causing Walcott to rush down to their offices to futilely protest the editor’s refusal.

When the vote for the war is arrived at in Congress, the major Bush collaborators are named–Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, Joseph Lieberman, John McCain. Only about a third of the Senate refuses to go along, among them Senator Robert Byrd. The clip from his dissenting speech is a highlight of the film. He states that he does not want to repeat his mistake of trusting the word of the President during the Vietnam War without definite proof that are WMDs.  The ultimate sell-out is the man whom Galloway once had advised, Secretary of State Colin Powell lending his considerable prestige in support of the Big Lie.

I suspect that parts of the film include characters made up and used to explain matters to a public that too quickly forgets the recent past. There is a romance concocted between Warren Strobel and his neighbor Lisa (Jessica Biel): during their first date she reveals that she has looked up information on Iraq and Hussein, launching into a mini-lecture on Muslim history, the division into the warring factions of Sunnis and Shias and how Saddam Hussein has kept the peace in his nation where he and his minority Shia faction rule over the larger Sunni faction. Most critics have derided this as unnecessary, but from my experience in leading groups, I believe it is very helpful—I’ve yet to find average church folk knowledgeable about Middle Eastern history, recent or ancient.

The only other women figuring in the story are wives– Kate Butler’s Nancy Walcott is able to hold up her end of conversations with her editor husband when they discuss the news. A sinister note is added by Milla Jovovich, Jonathan Landay’s Slavic wife Vlatka, who fears for their family’s safety after a vicious email is sent, threatening the staff’s lives. However, this danger is not developed any further.

Probably the emotional highpoint comes late in the film when the wheelchair-bound soldier Adam (Luke Tennie), who earlier while testifying before a Congressional committee had asked the “why” of this unnecessary war that had crippled him for life, pays a night-visit to the Vietnam War Memorial. The Knight Ridder reporters are also there, sobered by their long struggle to expose the premeditated war plans of Bush and Cheney. There are no speeches. All we need to underline the importance of their investigative reporting is to see them in the same frame.

Though not as well developed as All the President’s Men, The Post, or Spotlight, Rob Reiner’s film is well worth supporting—and judging by the fact that I was the entire audience when I went to see it a Cincinnati art theater, it badly needs promoting! (Just checked and discovered the film has been dropped from the theater’s schedule—just after one week.)

As a “profiles in courage” story this is tops—continuing to investigate and charge the top two US officials of getting ready to send our troops to war on made-up evidence when all the rest of the media are supporting the President and Vice President shows an incredible commitment to get at the truth. Much is made of The New York Times reporter Judith Miller leading the pack in support of Bush’s war. She is given the last word in the clip that concludes the film, admitting to John Stewart that in regard to the Iraq War the Knight Ridder staff were “the only ones who got it right.”

The film also should caution us against blind patriotism, such as accompanied the Vietnam War and the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers. The healthy skepticism of members of the Fourth estate toward war plans—as well as that of the public and members of Congress—vanished amidst the angry desire to strike back at the enemy. Unfortunately, the real enemy was in another country where he managed to elude his pursuers, while we attacked the wrong country.

If this shows up at a theater near you, don’t delay in gathering a party to go and discuss it.

This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the August 2018 issue of Visual Parables.


Bringing Out the Dead (1999)

Critics have (rightly) referenced Bergman and Robert Bresson in their reviews of Paul Schrader’s new film First Reformed, so I want to bring to your attention an earlier film written by Schrader himself that also dealt with hope and despair, though perhaps not as deep a level.

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 1 min.

Our content ratings (1-10)  Violence 7; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our star rating (1-5): 5

 How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!

How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!


She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks;

      among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her;


Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

     Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow,

    which was brought upon me,

which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.

        Lamentations 1:1a, 2a. 12 

(c) Paramount Pictures

If ever there was a Hell approximating what Medieval artist Hieronymos Bosch painted, it was the night streets of pre-Giuliani New York depicted in Martin Scorcese’s new film. Although not as bad off as the destroyed Jerusalem of Jeremiah’s time, there are dark corners of the American city populated by cast-off people who are as traumatized as much as the author of Lamentations. It is the victims of New York’s mean streets that paramedic Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage) and his partners must pick up, render emergency aid to, and try to transport them to the hospital before they die. Frank’s world is one in which homeless people sleep beneath almost every bridge and in every alley. Crack cocaine is taking its toll, not only the users dying of overdoses, but users, pushers, and innocent bystanders dying from gunshot wounds resulting from misunderstandings, robberies, and revenge shootings. Frank is almost burnt out, himself one of the walking wounded, a victim of dealing with too much mayhem and carnage. What keeps him going is the rush that comes when he and his partner of the night are able to save a life.

The film might make you think of Scorcese’s classic Taxi Driver, both dealing with the violence and human tragedies of the streets of New York, but Frank Pierce is a very different character from Travis Bickle. The latter is a loner whose inward rage turns him into a violent, avenging angel. Frank is looking for peace and companionship, the gentleness evident in his face once causing his mother to remark that he had the face of a priest. And, in a way, a priest he is, channeling grace to an assortment of desperate people terribly hurt by the brutal violence of the slums of the city.

Frank is attracted by the daughter of a man he picks up who is in cardiac arrest. Her name is Mary (Patricia Arquette), and he sees her several times over the next few days as she hovers around the hospital hoping that her father will live. They enter into several conversations, Frank escorting her home, and later accompanying her to an apartment called the Oasis, where a slick-talking proprietor dispenses drugs to his desperate clients looking for momentary respite from their sordid troubles. The exhausted Frank is tempted to take the proffered elixir of escape, but he resists, rousing himself to take Mary away from the den of living death. Several times Frank looks in on Mary’s father, whose imploring looks are calling for an end to the torture of using the shock instrument that brings him back from the peace of death. We, and we alone, can hear his plea to let him be. There are times when death is the only relief from suffering. (See James Weldon Johnson’s great poem/sermon “Go Down, Death.”)

Frank’s three ambulance partners deal with the squalor and death in different ways: Larry resorts to gallows humor and cynicism; Marcus (Ving Rhames) finds meaning in his faith in Jesus, albeit a very unorthodox faith; and Walls (Tom Sizemore) himself often resorts to violence to release his pent-up frustration.

There are many signs of grace in the film–a quick glimpse of a statue of the Virgin Mary; a powerful version of a Pieta at the end when Frank tells Mary her father’s fate; and frequent conversations about God and whether there is a divine plan to anything or not. In one memorable scene Frank describes to Mary how great he feels on the all too rare occasion when he saves someone’s life: “God has passed through you, why deny it…For one moment God was you.” Look at the cover of the DVD, and you might think that Frank exhibits more than “the face of a priest.” Might he be a Christ figure with a stethoscope?

(c) Paramount Pictures

Bringing Out the Dead was adapted from former paramedic Joe Connelly’s novel by long-time Scorcese collaborator Paul Schrader. Well known for his Calvinist background, Schrader and the Catholic Scorcese have provided us with films that explore the torment inherent in the human condition–Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and The Last Temptation of Christ. In their current film they do find the grace that is also a part of the human condition. Bringing Out the Dead might not be for everyone, with its many scenes soaked in blood, violence and profane language, but for those able to take it, the film is as rewarding a dose of the harshness of reality as is likely to be found in a movie theater.

Reprinted (with a few changes) from the Dec. 1999 issue of Visual Parables.

Let’s Promote THOREAU: Surveyor of the Soul

As you can see elsewhere on ReadtheSpirit, I really  enjoyed watching the Thoreau video by the man who professionally goes just by the name “Huey.” It provides an over all view of the life of the man and his challenging writings. Because it is currently available only from him, it will be difficult for many of you to see. Thus I’m urging you to do what I’ve done, put in a purchase request  for it to your local library. It is the ideal DVD for this, filled with inspiring information about a man that  the public is aware of but about whom it really knows little.

There is very little information about the film on IMDB, the link to my review being the first, and there is no photo of the DVD cover–thus I believe that the filmmaker is so engaged in teaching & filming that he’s been able to do little to promote the film beyond his arranging for its screenings. You can be of great help in spreading the word about it by getting your library to buy  a copy. You might include a link to my review, or copy & paste relevant portions of it–don’t worry about copyright.

I’ve initiated a contact with the American Library Assoc. to get  one of its staff to review the film so that more librarians will become aware of the film. T here is as yet nothing about the DVD on Amazon, so I am urging the filmmaker to work on this.

This is an independent film that deserves to find an audience, always an uphill struggle for small budget filmmakers.  And this is a time when we need Thoreau to remind us to resist injustice at all levels of society and government. Please join me in this effort–and let us know by  your replies that you are doing so.

Mary Shelley (2017)

Rated PG-13. Running time: 2 hours

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity 3.

Our start rating (1-5): 4.5

Look on my right hand and see—
there is no one who takes notice of me;
no refuge remains to me;
no one cares for me.

Psalm 142:4


As in all the churches of the saints, women should be silent in the churches. For they are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate, as the law also says.  If there is anything they desire to know, let them ask their husbands at home. For it is shameful for a woman to speak in church.

1 Cor. 14:33b-35

The poet Percy Shelley & Mary Godwin live together even though he still is married to his first wife. (c) IFC Films

Although Mary Wollstonecraft is well known for her radical views on marriage and her writings on the rights of women, her daughter Mary Godwin Shelley has become even more famous due to her classic novel Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus—and this at the tender age of 18! Thus I was delighted to learn that Haifaa Al Mansour, director of one of my favorite films for 2012 Wadjda, has a new film out, which she co-wrote with Emma Jensen. Its time and country—early 19th Century England are far different from Wadjda’s present-day Saudi Arabia, but its heroine also struggles mightily against a patriarchy that would restrict her freedom.

16-year-old Mary wants to become a writer, following in the footsteps of her deceased mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, and her politically radical father William Godwin (Stephen Dillane). William, who himself has garnered a measure of fame as a philosopher and publisher, encourages his daughter, though as she concocts ghost stories, currently in vogue, he cautions her to find her own voice. Part of this search involved the girl’s strife with her step-mother who makes no secret of her disapproval the girl.

Sent to a friend’s home in Scotland where she finds more freedom, Mary soon meets the dashing young poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Smitten with him, there begins their up and down passionate relationship that for a while brings about a break with her father when it is revealed that Shelley has a wife and daughter from whom he is estranged. Mary leaves home with her beloved half-sister Claire (Bel Powley) to join her lover disregarding his marital status.

The film openly shows her flaunting of the conventions of society, and also her own hurt and lack of consistency in the incident in which a friend attempts to seduce Mary. She complains to Shelley, and he shows no sign of outrage, but reminds her that she has advocated free love.

The threesome spend time in Switzerland with the free-spirited Lord Byron (Tom Sturridge), Mary continually writing. Then comes the famous day at Byron’s Genevan villa when, inspired by their reading of a book of ghost stories, the group decided that each of them would write a horror story. Thus, began Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein­, based on her keen interest in science. (Earlier in a scene in England we see Mary attending a public demonstration of galvanism.) Eventually with the support of Percy, whom she marries when his first wife commits suicide, Mary’s book is published, but anonymously because of her sex. Because he wrote an introduction the public assumes that Percy Shelley is the author.

I don’t know about the historicity of the scene in which Percy declares that he is not the author and praises his wife as the true author while she listens unperceived by him, but it is a dramatically satisfying one. I do know that their future years together were not quite as harmonious as the end titles state, but they did indeed stay together until his unfortunate death by drowning a few years later.

As with Wadjda, filmmaker Haifaa Al Mansour has given us a film worth sharing with our daughters to encourage them in their struggle during those times when they come up against the remnants of patriarchy. Her own nation has just now allowed women to be able to drive their own cars, but when the drive themselves to the new cinemas now allowed to oper ate, will they be able to see her films?

It is intriguing to learn from her film that Mary Shelley drew from her own sense of rejection and isolation, as being the outsider in a man’s world, for her novel. For me this was new, hitherto knowing the novel only through some of the films inspired by it, virtually all of which depicted the monster as being totally evil. She seems to know intuitively through her own experience the importance of society’s perception based on appearances and prejudices. This makes me think of a wonderful scene in Brad Bird’s excellent film The Iron Giant, in which the giant robot and the boy Hogarth are in the woods enjoying the sight of a deer when a shot rings out. The boy and the robot both are saddened by the killing, but when the two hunters show up to claim the body and see the huge robot, one of them cries out, “It’s the monster!” What an irony that it is “the monster” who grieves over the killing of a creature for sport. Let us hope that her two future productions listed on IMDB, Nappily Ever After and The Perfect Candidate will be as good as her first two films!

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July issue of Visual Parables.


The Catcher Was a Spy (2018)

Rated R. Running time: 1 hour 38 min.

Our content ratings (1-10): Violence 2; Language 1; Sex/Nudity-3.

Our star rating (1-5): 4

Bring to an end the violence of the wicked and make the righteous secure— you, the righteous God who probes minds and hearts.

Psalm 7:9

Moe Berg & All Star teammates during their tour of Japan in the 30s.           (c) IFC Films

Director Ben Lewin’s film is a variation of the standard WW 2 and spy genres, centering on an outsider who says he feels a sense of belonging in just two places—a library and a baseball field. His protagonist is the real-life baseball player Morris “Moe” Berg, the script based on Nicholas Dawidoff’s book of the same name.

Moe (Paul Rudd) was the catcher in the 1930s for the Boston Red Sox. As a non-practicing Jew at a time when anti-Semitism was about as widespread as prejudice against blacks, he also is plagued by the suspicion that he is a homosexual, something that is more than hinted at in the film. He also does not fit in with the team because of his degrees from Princeton, Columbia, and the Sorbonne and his ability to speak more than half a dozen languages—his teammates dub him “The Professor.” He even takes part in a quiz show broadcast over the radio.

Moe is unmarried but in a relationship with Estella (Sienna Miller), with whom he enjoys vigorous sex, but, although she would make their relationship legal, he keeps her at arm’s length. She is deeply disappointed when he refuses to take her to Japan when he is named to an All-American team that will engage in a series of exhibition games in that baseball-loving nation.

He enjoys playing ball in Japan, off the field entering a relationship with Japanese scholar Kawabata (Hiroyuki Sanada), who confirms his premonition that Japan and the United States are doomed to go to war against each other. Dressed in a Japanese robe, he goes to the roof of a hospital and with a 16mm camera films Tokyo harbor, its ships, and military installations.

Back in the States, after Pearl Harbor, he learns from a friend about the Office of Strategic Services. He takes his can of film and shows it to O.S.S. director William J. Donovan (Jeff Daniels). Donovan is impressed by the film and their interview, but, suspicious and worried, asks, “Are you queer?” Moe replies, “I’m good at keeping secrets.” Even the suspicion of such back then was enough to destroy a government career, but Donovon hires him anyway.

He chafes at being assigned to deskwork in the Balkans office, but just when he rebels, Donovan gives him a field assignment because of his fluency in Italian and German. He is told of the Manhattan Project and that Germany might also be attempting to build a nuclear bomb under the leadership of the Nobel physicist Werner Heisenberg (Mark Strong). He is introduced to physicist Samuel Goudsmit (Paul Giamatti), once a friend of Heisenberg’s. His assignment is to travel with Goudsmit and another agent to Rome (still in German hands but soon to fall), talk to an Italian scientist who also is a friend of the German, and then move on to Zurich where he is to lure Heisenberg there by a lecture offer. Once he hears and meets Heisenberg, he is to find out if their mark is working on an atomic bomb. If there seems to be the slightest chance that he is, Moe is to kill him.

The mission requires combat training and then joining up with front-line troops as they are advancing to the Eternal City. There is a combat sequence that I found exciting, even if many critics did not. Best of all was the scene in which Moe, his major league having ended, plays a ballgame with the soldiers. When one of them recognizes him, the others are filled with awe and delight to be playing with a major league athlete. It helps too that, despite his low batting average, he whacks a ball out of the rubble-lined field. For a brief period, the outsider is ”in” as the men eagerly gather around him, one of them asking that he sign the game ball. Nice touch.

The actual meeting up with Heisenberg in Zurich has all the suspense of a typical spy tale, even though we know the outcome. The visiting professor carefully avoids making any political remark both in the lecture hall and at the lavish dinner held in his honor at the host’s home. An ardent anti-Nazi woman tries to get him to comment on Hitler, but he declines, and the others shush her. Moe and the scientist engage each other over a chess board, and at the dinner table exchange chess moves, both apparently able to memorize the board. The German physicist excuses himself early; Moe, pistol cocked, follows him onto he dark street, and…

As the critics have noted, Moe Berg remains an enigma at the end of his film—I was especially curious about the inclusion of his participating in a synagogue worship service before embarking on his mission, the only indication that this non-practicing Jew might have a mustard seed amount of faith. He seemed to love Estella at first but did not reunite with her after the war. If the scriptwriters got it right, he did engage in sex with men as well. He is the kind of man who is difficult to describe, reminding me of the famous Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states that we cannot know both the position and the velocity of a quanta. Moe is attempting to arrive at some degree of certainty when he quizzes the scientists about their German friend. Can he build an atom bomb? Would he build one? He has been instructed that even if there’s a 5% chance that Heisenberg is heading a nuclear bomb project, he should kill him, but his conscience keeps bothering him over the question of killing a human being who might or might not be helping the Nazis.

In Wikipedia’s article “Werner Heisenberg” there is just a short paragraph on Moe’s contact with Heisenberg, so we can be grateful for this feature-length treatment, simplified as it is (for example, the ballplayer made an earlier trip to Japan not depicted in the film. and his sad post-War behavior is left out of the postscript. See Wikipedia’s article on him, which includes Moe Berg’s baseball card—at the end of the article it is said that his is the only baseball card on display at the C.I. A. Headquarters.)

Although by no means without its faults, this film about a footnote to history is well worth your time.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July issue of Visual Parables.


Henry David Thoreau: Surveyor of the Soul (2017)


Not Rated. Running time: 1 hour 53 min.

Documentary, no violence, vulgar language, or sex.

Our stars (1-5): 5

You shall not follow a majority in wrongdoing…

Exodus 23:2a

Mention Thoreau, and everybody knows you are speaking of Henry David Thoreau, poet, philosopher of Nature and essayist of civil disobedience. In Maine, mention Huey, and a great many people will know you are talking about the long-time educator and filmmaker who chooses to leave off his family name in the credits. Huey’s newest film gives us a thorough picture of Thoreau, aided by various scholars, teenage students and their leaders involved in projects inspired by him, archival pictures and visits to numerous sites associated with the philosopher, and a talented impersonator, referred to as an “interpreter,” plus, of course numerous doses of his perceptive writings.

Even if you are familiar with snatches of Thoreau’s “purple prose” emblazoned on so many posters through the years, this film has much to teach you about this amazing man who stuffed so much zest and wisdom into his far too short 44 years. I was intrigued to learn of his close connection to the ubiquitous pencil, that as a teenager while working for his father’s small firm that manufactured and sold pencils, he developed a machine that removed impurities from graphite, so that his family’s pencils were said to be the best in New England. I never knew that he had an older brother John who loved the same girl that Henry did, or that the two had for a few years joined together to set up a school. (Earlier Henry had quit as a school teacher when it was demanded that he use corporeal punishment rather than persuasion to maintain discipline.) John’s untimely death was a huge blow to the writer that ended the progressive school. Henry met revolutionist John Brown when the latter came seeking financial support from admirers, and later defended vigorously him in speeches just before the government executed him at Harper’s Ferry.

Of course, the film offers far more than just biographical information, the filmmaker’s major concern obviously being to show us the lasting and widespread influence that Thoreau’s ideas have had on the world. The filmmaker does this by various means, starting with quick, recurring shots of memorial stones of major figures indebted to him—Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and John Muir being the foremost. Then there are sequences involving young people at Walden Pond and at a camp in Vermont studying and discussing his ideas. The youth are at an ideal age to reflect upon his words. One quotation that we see time after time emblazoned on a sign at Walden is: “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” His stress upon the importance of being in the present amidst the beauty of nature, and of living a life of simplicity are explored by the youth, as well as by the various scholars interviewed. The testimony of several Penobscot Indian guides concerning what Thoreau learned from their ancestors when he visited Maine is also of great interest.

Of course, there are many, many shots of Walden Pond where Thoreau built his cabin on land owned by the famous poet and essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had become his mentor and, at various times, his host. Thoreau lived in the cabin for two years, writing about his experiences in a series of journals. The original cabin is gone, but it’s site is clearly marked by a memorial, and we do meet Richard Smith, the skillful Interpreter who looks and sounds like Thoreau as he responds to visitors in the essayist’s words. We also visit the Thoreau home in nearby Concord, which has been carefully restored and opened for tours.

A quotation from Walden marks the site of Thoreau’s cabin, with a pile of stones in between, left out of respect by pilgrims.

My favorite section of the film deals with the “Essay on Civil Disobedience,” which I first read when I was in high school, but not in a class, where all that I can recall being told about him was that he was a poet and naturalist living beside a pond. I came to him backwards, from my interest in Gandhi and his campaigns of civil disobedience, learning that it was the American Thoreau whose Essay had a great influence on the Mahatma when he was in South Africa developing his nonviolent philosophy. One of the film’s many interviewees is historian Howard Zinn, who speaks about the Essay and the writer’s living up to his words by refusing to pay his poll tax. This lead to his arrest and incarceration in the town jail for a night. He was upset the next day when his aunt paid the tax for him, because he saw his act as a repudiation of the government’s support of slavery and of the Mexican War as an extension of that abomination. The filmmaker visually underscores the revolutionary nature of the Essay and his defiant act by frequent cuts to the Concord Bridge where the shots “heard round the world” were fired, as well as by a shot of The Declaration of Independence itself.

We learn of Thoreau’s visits to Maine, Staten Island, Cape Cod, as well as to Minnesota, some of which resulted in books filled with keen insights. Thoreau was working hard on his writings when in 1862 he succumbed to the tuberculosis which had plagued him off and on since his student days at Harvard. The film gives a quote from the eulogy that Emerson gave at his friend’s funeral. “No truer American existed than Emerson.” The film concludes with a series of short statements by the people whom we have met throughout the film, each displaying the lasting impact this 19th century American has had upon them in the 21st century.

Huey’s film provides a good companion to reading Thoreau’s works—indeed, I have been so inspired by the film that I’m starting to revisit the few works that I have read and launch into some less familiar ones. The film’s subtitle comes from one of the means by which he earned his living, that of a land surveyor. This portion of the film leads to an intriguing exploration of how he moved beyond boundaries, taking positions beyond the accepted ones. That he marched to “a different drummer” is seen by his delivering three different times his ardent defense of John Brown, this at a time when society condemned the insurrectionist as a dangerous traitor. Some of his friends and associates urged him not to champion the condemned man, but Thoreau was too much of an abolitionist to remain silent.

This is a DVD that should be in every library, personal or public. Thanks to its chapter headings making it easy to go directly to specific topics, it lends itself for use in classes and study groups. Maybe it will inspire and encourage a young person to take up the mantle of a prophet and speak to the sanctioned wrongs of our own times.

To purchase this highly usable film or find out where it might be screening, go to the “Films by Huey” site at http://www.filmsbyhuey.com/.

This review with a set of discussion questions is in the July issue of Visual Parables.