Saturday, October 1, 2011

On Second Viewing - Machine Gun Preacher- Missed Opportunity


After a hair raising drive to get there in time for the 5:30 showing of Machine Gun Preacher at the Arclight Hollywood last Saturday (Murphy's law being what it is, traffic lights were down in an area just before the freeway and traffic backed up for 20 minutes),  I ran through the theater, preprinted ticket in hand at 5:30 exactly and sure they would not let me in.  Finding out what theater it was in, I headed for the stairs down, when I spotted Sam Childers, the preacher man himself,  in the lobby all by his lonesome.  On impulse, I put my hand on his shoulder in passing and said to him "Hey Reverand Sam, I'm on my way to see your movie!"   He gave me surprised smile and a "hey" back as I continued at breakneck speed down the stairs.

Suddenly realizing I had left my water in the car, I debated whether I had time enough to buy a bottle.  Deciding not, I scurried into the darkened theater where the previews were in progress, showed the usher my ticket and he directed me to the second row, second section.   I had thought I bought one in the first row, but the last preview was winding down, so I didn't bother to argue.    Oh, how I wish I had.

I am a nice person and I try not to judge others, but I found myself annoyed to be sitting next to what appeared to be a contingent of middle age and older Gerry fans who talked, moaned and tittered through many parts of the movie. Every time G appeared in one scene or another, it made me cringe when a deep sigh escaped several of the women.   Not only did I feel a little embarrassed for them, but annoyed that their carrying on took a little away from the seriousness of the topic and the focus on the performances.   It seems that it doesn't matter how hard this actor is trying to give a good performance, for some people it is still only about his looks...that he is a sexy dude. Thinking about that, never mind being embarrassed for them, I felt bad for him.  Being seen primarily as a hunky piece of meat over an actor trying to be something more must seem like a futile endeavor sometimes.

Now it's okay to be an avid fan, but I honestly have to think that this kind of thing is such a turn off to regular movie goers that are there to see a serious movie and don't care about who the actor is.   It was certainly a turn off to me, and I am fond of this guy.

Now to the movie.  I still found the first part of it dark and some of it colorless and the truth of it is, that the only real technicolor part of it was Gerry's intense look, peering out from Sam's eyes.

While a couple of the preaching scenes were was hard for me to buy Gerry as a preacher but I think the problem here lies with me, not with him.   When I was very young I went to enough churches with my grandfather to see the born again, fundamentalist type preachers and even then, as a young child, felt the preaching was more about showmanship then anything to do with God.  That kind of preaching never connected or touched me as much as a quiet sermon from a kind face...where you could look at it and know that God was IN that person, not some exterior thing or diety that you beat people over the head with.  I'm the type of person who likes sitting quietly in old Cathedrals and feeling the weight of history, the quietness of prayer, the real personal nature of communing with something greater than yourself, but still knowing that that essence is still a very part of  YOU and that you are worthy of that piece of divinity because you can feel it's grace touch you.  When you are out in nature, particularly the mountain forests or watching the ocean at sunset, it sometimes takes the place of the is that same communing with the vastness that represents God.  So while he may have been very effective in these scenes, my old tapes were playing loud and clear.  My fault...not the performance.

In other parts of the movie, I can almost go down a list of scenes and grade them from A-C, according to how convincing his performance was to me. Funnily enough, the bathroom drug scene was brilliant.  The scenes in the car with his pal when they are shooting up was spot on.    The Bank scene.   The nervousness in the church before baptism.  The quiet moments in his bunk in Sudan.     Watching the footage on the TV of news of Garang's death and his anger towards the normality in his home, when he is still so full of Africa.  The chilling Africa scenes where he sees the horrors of an attack on the village.   Several scenes with the little boy William and most of the scenes with Deng.  He was so on and really with it.  I loved his performance in these moments.

I also thought Michelle's performance was very good.  She got the grit, but infused it with her own brand of sweet that came through and that was very effective.  Michael Shannon's moments on the screen were also excellent.

The not so great moments:  The grenade launcher scene at the bridge was not real.  It felt like it belonged in another movie.  There were several other moments like that one where it felt like they belonged in a different movie.  It was a case where cinematic license somehow didn't fit, where jazzing it up for general audiences, didn't work.

Some of my favorite things....the little boy William and the other children in almost every scene they were in.   The quiet face of Souleymane Sy Savane...saying so much with such little effort.  The hard to look at moments when Sam sees the women whose lips have been cut off, the little boy who is blown up by the land mine or grenade.

I thought that there were a lot more A moments then C moments in G's acting, but no matter how many double negatives he used, there is a certain brute force that comes in lieu of grey matter, that he couldn't quite capture.  I'm not saying Sam isn't smart, but when you've seen a lot of the world (like Gerry has) and experienced it, it comes through your eyes and it's hard to shove it back down and show a more narrowed focus of existence.  Yet Sam has probably seen a lot more than G in the suffering of children, the cruelty of man (including his own) so his is more a street smarts that you get only from being where he's been.

I still really liked G's performance in this and to be really honest, if I didn't know who he was and came in fresh off the street,  I may not have liked the movie as a piece of entertainment, but I would have remembered the impression the story and the actor made on me.   The catch 22 (yes there is usually one)  being that I probably would not have gone to see it had G not been starring in the first place.  But having seen it, I would have come away with a hunger to see more of this actor's work.

Like a lot of other people, the movie only took on a real life for me in Africa.   The parts in Pennsylvania, aside from the acting, were drab and colorless. And I got to thinking that perhaps that is the truth of Sam's life.  Perhaps he also finds it dull and grey at home and he only feels alive tackling something beyond that insular simplicity of church, work,  home and bar.  Perhaps none of that is a challenge for him and he has to find his meaning elsewhere.   Here it just happened to be Africa and the children who needed a savior....a hero.  Perhaps Sam needs being the hero to someone and his past tainted him at home.  And part of being a hero in the kind of world he grew up in... means carrying a gun and using force to achieve what you want.  In Africa it was okay for him to do so.  At home it was not.

After having that thought, all I could think of was how I wished I hadn't run through that lobby.  Sam was alone and I'm pretty sure had I engaged him in conversation while he was waiting for whomever he was waiting for,  he would have talked to me.  I would have liked to look into his eyes and ask him if he he had really been that bad a dude and decided for myself.  I've known men like Sam.  They need something from you and if you know what it is and give it, they will let you in a little.   It was a missed opportunity to ask the right questions and perhaps see and hear for myself if that passion for the kids was really there and what really lit it.

I thought maybe I would get another chance after the movie, but when I saw how the women next to me scampered off after Gerry and the rest of the Q&A panel walked out towards the lower lobby, I figured they knew just where to go to see their idol.  I've a feeling it is routine for them.

Being who I am, I always stay for most of the credits, feeling that a certain respect is due the work all the other souls put into the making of a movie, so when I finally walked out, Gerry and company were mobbed (backed against a wall), with people taking photographs and cell phone flashes going off all over the place.
I looked on from afar for a few moments, wondering if I should try to say something, decided it wasn't my scene and after a quick stop at the restroom, headed upstairs to the main lobby.

Really thirsty by now, I sat at the bar and ordered a short Campari and soda and a bottle of water and checked the e-mails on my Blackberry.   There was something wrong and they were not coming through, so I had to go in and reprogram the e-mail portion.  About 10 minutes later, while I was doing that, I happened to look up and saw the women who had been sitting next to me come up the steps into the main lobby.  I'm sure they got their photographs and their hugs.  Good for them.   It probably made their day.  I don't do photographs.  Don't take them, don't want to be in them.  A quiet moment of conversation would have been nice, but the frenzy surrounding certain people is not my style.  I am not a gushing type.  I want a little substance.  I give something and I want something of equal value back.  I usually get it, but not in this kind of scene.

I returned to my programming and the next time I happened to look up, I caught a quick glimpse of Gerry and his group, who had just come up the stairs, and one more fan asking for a photo before I lost sight of them as they made their way out of the theater.

I sat and finished my drink and 10 minutes later, headed for home and a some soup and warm washcloths on my now green tinged bruise and swollen lower cheek, still thinking of the missed opportunity before the screening....when I would have had Sam Childers all to myself.

When I got home I pulled out my ticket and checked it...and sure enough, the dummy had directed me to the wrong seat.  Except then I realized it was me that was the dummy for not checking it before I went in
and kicked myself for more than one missed opportunity.

Songs out of tune, the words always a little wrong...Canzoni Stonate


Did anyone else catch the line spoken by Sam in the movie where he said "with our last breath" in exactly the same intonation Gerry used in 300?  It made me wonder if it was a "nod" to his famous  role and made me want to laugh at a moment when it was supposed to be serious.

Ahhh Gerry....the ever present jokester is never far away.

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